Andrew Brunson is a loving father, husband, and Presbyterian pastor who has been sharing the word of the Gospel to the people of Turkey for the last 20 years. In October 2016, Brunson was arrested by the Turkish government, accused of being an American spy and terrorist who helped the plotters of the failed coup attempt against the Turkish government earlier that summer.
This spring, days before the start of Brunson’s trial, I traveled to Izmir, Turkey, to meet with him at the prison where he was being held. It was immediately evident that Brunson was not in good health. Although he has been strengthened by his love for his family and faith in God, he had lost 50 pounds in prison and spends 24 hours a day in a cell with limited human contact. At one point, Brunson was held with 21 people in a prison cell designed for only eight people.
During our meeting, Brunson told me that his worst fear was that the American government would accept the charges against him and simply forget about him. I told him that I and my fellow members of Congress would never allow that to happen.
Weeks later, I returned to Turkey, this time to attend Brunson’s first trial hearing. The 12-hour hearing, translated into English by an interpreter, confirmed my worst suspicions. The charges against Brunson are completely bogus, a nonsensical collection of outrageous conspiracy theories and ridiculous allegations made by anonymous witnesses. The trial itself is a kangaroo court, led by a three-judge panel that presumes Brunson is guilty and forces him to defend himself without interacting with his lawyer.
The indictment against Brunson actually claims that all churches in America are connected through an organization called CAMA, which includes the CIA, FBI, and NSA as members. The indictment claims that any Christian missionary — Evangelical or Mormon — who travels to another country is operating under the control of CAMA, essentially making them a spy for the American government.
One of the key pieces of evidence brought against Brunson was a text message his daughter sent him that contained a video of “makluba,” a traditional Arab rice and meat dish that is popular in the Middle East. The indictment claims the dish is also popular among terrorist groups, thereby linking Brunson to terrorism. During the trial, Brunson noted he has never even eaten the dish and learned the name of it by reading it in his indictment.
Of course, no prosecutor in any democratic country would ever consider the charges to be even remotely credible. And yet, he now faces up to 35 years in prison, effectively a life sentence.
The Turkish government knows the case against Brunson is meritless. They are using Brunson as a political hostage, and have proposed swapping Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish national legally residing in the United States. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, claims that Gülen is a terrorist who plotted the failed 2016 coup attempt against him. However, the Turkish government has failed to produce the evidence needed to substantiate its claims and secure Gülen’s extradition to Turkey.
As a NATO ally, Turkey has a fundamental obligation to respect the due process rights of American citizens who travel to or reside in Turkey — which they are denying Brunson. The United States, in kind, has an obligation to protect its citizens.
Time is of the essence as Brunson’s next trial hearing is set for July 18. That is why I worked with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) to secure an amendment in the Senate’s annual defense authorization that would delay the transfer of F-35 joint strike fighters to Turkey, which is slated to purchase more than 100 F-35s from the United States over the coming years. It directs the Secretary of Defense to submit a plan to Congress to remove the government of Turkey from participation in the F-35 program.
The amendment, which received overwhelming bipartisan support during the Senate Armed Services Committee mark-up, sends a clear message to President Erdogan that the wrongful treatment and imprisonment of American citizens in Turkey will have consequences.
President Erdogan and the Turkish government now have a decision to make. Will they choose to remain a member of the NATO alliance, enjoying the strategic and military benefits that come with it, including the F-35 program? Or will they choose to continue to stray away from its longstanding democratic norms and alienate its NATO allies with behavior characteristic of autocratic regimes adversarial to the free world?
I hope they choose the former. As the Turkish government deliberates what kind of relationship it would like to have with the United States, it should understand that a number of senators from both sides of the aisle are ready and willing to use every legislative tool available to keep the pressure on. We will not forget about Andrew Brunson.
Thom Tillis, a U.S. senator from North Carolina, is a member of the Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Personnel.