The trial started late and went long. The court continued to rely on secret witnesses and a smattering of disconnected mobile phone and other records to build a case against Brunson. At one point a witness produced a stack of The Watchtower magazines put out by Jehovah’s Witnesses, as though they proved Brunson’s hidden activities to undermine the state. Besides alleged involvement with Kurdish militants, Brunson throughout the morning was accused of serving as a cover for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Masons, and others.
Two secret witnesses testified via video linkage, their faces blurred and voices altered. Another five witnesses testified openly in person, according to Barbara Baker of World Watch Monitor.
At the outset the presiding judge noted that missionary activity is in fact legal in Turkey. Yet the prosecution’s witnesses seemed intent on proving Brunson’s Christian activities linked him to Kurdish terrorism and the now-banned Gülen movement.
One secret witness using the name “Serhat” said Brunson was the coordinator of the “religious arm” of the PKK, and arranged arms transfers from the United States to Kurdish fighters in Syria and Turkey. Serhat said Brunson was trying to establish a Christian Kurdish state and provided U.S. forces with coordinates of drop sites for weapons shipments to the PKK.
Serhat repeatedly admitted he had not himself witnessed what he claimed but had “seen social media accounts.” Brunson, on rebuttal, told the court: “This witness gave not a single piece of evidence. He said, ‘I heard all this from second- or third-hand individuals.’”
Brunson also told the court he had never seen or met the first three open witnesses, though they claimed to know him. Two of those witnesses were themselves prisoners, brought from jail under guard to testify.
One young man Brunson did recognize was a well-known troublemaker who had kicked over the communion table during a service at Brunson’s Izmir church. Brunson eventually asked him to leave the church. The witness told the court terrorist flags flew inside the church. He admitted to creating a fake Facebook page for the church, linking it with photos to the PKK. Yet the chief judge accepted his testimony, even leading him with questions.
WHILE THE PROCEEDINGS dragged on, in North Carolina the pre-dawn prayer time was scheduled to end at 5 a.m. But at 5:15 no one had left and prayers had moved into singing. Between hymns, Pam Brunson suddenly stood up, looked around and said: “I felt some power loosed in the courtroom when we began to sing praises. Let’s not stop.” The gathering would continue for another hour.
It was noon in Izmir. In the courtroom, Brunson continued speaking to his own defense as one after another witness testified against him. “He did not know what the witnesses were going to say, he did not even know some of them,” White noted. “He had to answer each one on the fly.”
At about 12:30 the jumbo screens suddenly went dark, a technical glitch forcing the judges to stop proceedings. Brunson turned and rose from his chair, against the rules, looking across the long room for his wife Norine and others in the audience. White rose too, raised his hand and mouthed, “We love you.” Brunson did not know White or Thielman would be there, and he began to cry, raising one hand toward the Americans and placing the other over his heart, mouthing in return, “Thank you for coming.” Soon the others cried too, as they exchanged greetings and White continued to speak to Brunson.
The technical difficulty lasted five minutes, “an amazing moment everyone noticed,” White said later. “To be a visible encouragement to Andrew for even five minutes had been one of my specific prayers in going to Turkey,” he added, saying he knew beforehand he would not be allowed to meet with Brunson.
The trial lasted 10 hours, but ended abruptly when the chief judge denied hearing any of the defense’s witnesses. Some were “suspects,” he said, and could not be considered reliable. One, a longtime Turkish pastor who asked not to be identified because he now fears arrest, said, “There is no case, no evidence, no breaking of the law here.”
The proceedings concluded with a sharp protest from Brunson’s lawyer Halavurt, who protested the court’s reliance on dubious witnesses and asked that his client be released, or at least remanded to house arrest where he could remain out of prison. The judges promptly denied both requests, and returned Brunson to his prison cell that evening.
INDEPENDENT MEDIA have been shuttered in Turkey, and the pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak, a daily outlet, published stories condemning Brunson, including an elaborate infographic showing his links to terrorism. But Turkish observers say public opinion, especially in Izmir, is decidedly pro-Brunson. Said one resident who attended the May 7 trial, not named for security reasons: “Of course many Turkish people are upset, and not only Turkish Christians. Anyone looking for democracy is upset with what’s happening. There was no justice today, and anyone can see that.”
Thielman said afterward he was shocked by “the level of nothing” prosecutors brought against Brunson, but he said the charges are not trivial and so have to be taken seriously by the U.S. government (see sidebar). White departed Turkey “sad, angry, and resolute,” he told his congregation. He said regular prayer times for the Brunsons and others impacted by the case will continue.
How is the long ordeal affecting those who know the Brunsons and his North Carolina congregation? I asked White in his office a week later. “It’s made us more of a serious people. Serious that Jesus Christ really is worth it. This is a mean world and we should not expect otherwise, so it’s important to be strong in the Lord and faithful in Jesus. We see our brother doing it and it’s hard. The Lord also is teaching us the patience of prayer, even when we are not seeing justice. We are going to be a praying people, and we will not walk away.”