For months on end, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his entire entourage and, of course, the 95 per cent of the Turkish printed and audiovisual media that marches in lockstep to his tune, have stuck to the narrative that the American pastor Andrew Brunson was a spy, a Gulenist and a supporter of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), all rolled into one.
Not that they saw any logical inconsistency in the fact that the pastor is Christian whereas Fethullah Gulen, the founder of the Hizmet movement whose members have been called “Gulenists”, is a Muslim cleric and Islamist pundit.
Gulen was fingered by Erdogan et al as the mastermind behind the aborted coup attempt in mid-July 2016 that set into motion the waves of purges targeting the “Gulenists”, or the “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organisation (FETO)”, and all critics of the Erdogan regime.
Having heard the three-part litany of accusations for so long, not a soul in Anatolia had the shadow of a doubt that the harshest of penalties would be handed down against that “agent” who affected piety while perpetrating acts of treachery (never detailed, of course) against the country that had welcomed him for 20 years.
Then, suddenly, the picture began to transmogrify. Touches were added here, patches were erased there and lines were sufficient blurred so that the media could gird the public for a piece of news that might not be pleasant to hear but to the reality of which all must bow when it comes from a judiciary of such unassailable integrity and unquestionable autonomy.
The news came Friday, 12 October, from the Aliaga High Criminal Court in Izmir, where, at 5pm, after a long day of listening to testimonies, the presiding judge pronounced Brunson guilty of assorted terrorist-related charges and added a stay of execution.
Although the court sentenced Brunson to three years and a month, it ruled that he had already served his sentence after two years in detention and it lifted the travel ban against him.
Upon that totally unanticipated pronouncement, the pastor left the court house, not to his Izmir home to catch his breath, say goodbye to long-time neighbours and pack his bags, but directly to the airplane that was already waiting on the runway at Menderes Airport, motors running and ready to take him to Germany.
The opposition newspapers seized upon the opportunity to expose the government for its hypocrisy. The man that public opinion had been led to believe was a spy, FETO member and promoter of the PKK had just been released! The news occupied their banner headlines, in contrast to the humbler, less visible headlines accorded to this event on the part of the ubiquitous pro-government media.
The Cumhuriyet, Sozcu, Yeni Cag, Milli Gazete, Yurt and Aydinlik newspapers agreed that Ankara had come under such pressure from abroad that four witnesses had to radically alter their previous testimonies.
They also maintained that the US had been informed of the “presidential decree” to release the pastor in advance. They cited US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s prediction, ventured the day before the Friday hearing, that Brunson would be released within 36 hours.
It is little wonder that Republican People’s Party (CHP) MP Aykot Erdogdu would lament, “when Merkel and Trump snap their fingers they get a ruling from the court.”
He was referring to how Ankara bowed to German and US pressures to release the German journalist of Turkish origin, Deniz Yucel in February, and Brunson last weekend. So much for the rule of law in Turkey, he added.
The Felicity Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, classes itself among the opposition even if many of its positions and attitudes are similar to those of the ruling AKP.
After the Brunson release, it certainly did not see eye-to-eye with the AKP and its boss on the state of the Turkish judiciary.
The party’s current leader, Temel Karamollaoglu, tweeted: “If there are witnesses who can change their testimonies for the feeblest reasons, that means that the judiciary is not independent.”
He recalled how Erdogan kept reminding Turkish public opinion, through all the media he controls, that the American pastor Andrew Brunson was not only an architect of the failed coup but also the cause of the economic difficulties in the country.
Then, addressing Erdogan, he said: “But in the end, you put the pastor on his plane and sent him home to his country.”
Meral Aksener, leader of the recently founded IYI (Good) Party, held that if Turkish intelligence and security agencies had clear and unequivocal proof that Brunson was a spy with PKK and FETO connections then he should have been tried as such and sentenced to 30 years, not three.
She then asked: “But if this was not the case, why was he arrested, jailed and then placed under house arrest? Does not this make one wonder?”
According to some Turkish analysts, Erdogan handed back Brunson without getting anything in return. His hostage diplomacy had not paid off in any of the pending bones of contention between Ankara and Washington, most notably the Halkbank case involving violations of sanctions against Iran and Erdogan’s longstanding demand for extradition of his archenemy Gulen. So, in the case of Brunson, Erdogan just threw in the towel.
While media attention has been focused on Brunson, there remain several other US detainees that Washington wants released. It is not unlikely that Washington will impose a new round of sanctions against top officials in the Erdogan regime if those detainees are not released soon, as well.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Brunson release