US pastor goes on trial in Turkey after arrest in coup crackdown

An American pastor has gone on trial in Turkey charged with aiding a terrorist organisation, in a case that has frayed relations between Turkey and the US.

Andrew Brunson is accused of helping a group led by Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Muslim preacher who Turkish officials allege was behind a failed 2016 coup.

Mr Brunson, who ran a Protestant church in the Turkish city of Izmir, was arrested in October 2016.

If convicted, he faces up to 35 years behind bars.

Mr Brunson, 50, an evangelical pastor originally from North Carolina, appeared in court on Monday in the town of Aliaga, alongside his lawyer Cem Halavurt.

Also in court were Sam Brownback, the US ambassador at large for religious freedoms, and US Senator Thom Tillis.

Mr Halavurt has called the charges “totally unfounded”, and says they are based on testimony from secret informants.

He told the AFP news agency ahead of the hearing that his client was “both nervous, but also excited because it is the first time he will appear before a judge. He has expectations and a hope”.

Turkey and US lock heads as relations reach new low

Prosecutors say Mr Brunson worked with a group led by Mr Gulen, who is living in exile in Pennsylvania in the US, as well as with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey has designated both Mr Gulen’s network and the PKK as terror groups, and accused My Gulen of fomenting an attempted military coup in the country in 2016, in which at least 250 people died.

Mr Gulen has denied any involvement in the attempted coup, and the European Union has said it does not share Turkey’s view that his network is a terror organisation.

Mr Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for 23 years, serving as pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, was among those swept up in a massive crackdown by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following the failed coup.

More than 50,000 people were arrested in the crackdown, 100,000 state employees fired and newspapers and TV stations shuttered.

Turkey initially accused the pastor of being a member of both Mr Gulen’s network and the PKK, but apparently adjusted the charges before the trial, accusing him of working on the groups’ behalf.

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