US officials request to be in courtroom during jailed pastor’s first hearing

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Imprisoned U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson is set to stand trial in a Turkish criminal court for the first time on April 16, with U.S. officialssaying they want to attend the hearing amid signals of easing bilateral tensions between Ankara and Washington.

The U.S. government will be represented at today’s hearing if the court decides to hold the trial open to the public, a senior U.S. official told the Hürriyet Daily News on condition of anonymity.

Several U.S. senators and U.S. International Religious Freedom Ambassador Sam Brownback have applied to the Turkish Justice Ministry to attend the hearing.

The U.S. official reiterated his country’s concerns not only about Brunson but also other detained U.S. citizens and local consulate employees in Turkey, a key point of strain between Ankara and Washington.

“We have never seen evidence that Pastor Brunson is guilty of any crime. We have never seen any evidence that the detained employees of the U.S. diplomatic mission are guilty of any crime. Our expectation is that the Turkish judicial system will do the right thing, which we respect. Justice will be done and these people will be able to go home,” the official said.

He stressed that the strong interest of the U.S. government — the Donald Trump administration and Congress — has been made “crystal clear” to the Turkish government.

“There is strong consensus in Congress over deep concern for U.S. citizens detained or arrested under the state of emergency [in Turkey] as well as U.S. government employees,” the official added, saying that the detentions were made on “very slim evidence of crimes under the state of emergency.”

“If the state of emergency did not exist there is no way a Turkish judge would entertain these cases,” he said.

Brunson, who has been jailed in the western province of İzmir since December 2016, has become a symbolic name in a string of arrests in Turkey and has received considerable attention from U.S. lawmakers. The indictment accuses Brunson of being linked to the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ), widely believed to have orchestrated the 2016 failed coup attempt, as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Prosecutors demand 15 years of imprisonment for “committing crimes on behalf of terror organizations without being a member,” while up to 20 years were sought for “political or military espionage.”

The indictment said Brunson was allegedly involved in converting Kurds to Christianity with aims to establish a Kurdish state for them.

His case has received considerable attention in U.S. media.

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