Skip to content

U.S. pastor credits Shaheen's role in his release from Turkish prison

WASHINGTON - Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina Christian missionary pastor detained for two years in Turkey, singled out U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., along with President Trump and Republican leaders with playing major roles in his release from captivity.

"There are a number of people in the Senate, and I can't mention everyone, but I know that my Senator (Thom) Tillis visited me in prison, so did Senator Shaheen and Senator (Lindsey) Graham, and Senator (James) Lankford," Brunson said while meeting with Trump in the Oval Office.

During a telephone interview Saturday, Shaheen called the release the end of a "thrilling" week of bipartisan work involving the White House, key members of Congress, diplomats and the heads of several federal agencies.

And Shaheen said there was no doubt Senate passage of legislation to delay the sale of F-135 fighter jets to Turkey played a part in getting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to move on this matter. The bill tied the sale of those jets to Brunson's captivity.

"We wanted to send a very strong message to the Turkish government that this was something that the U.S. was not going to condone or forget," Shaheen said of the Senate bill that passed last June.

"I think it did get their attention and make them realize there were going to be more repercussions if they didn't take this action."

Brunson was arrested over alleged links to political groups, including the banned Gulenist movement, after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

On Friday, a Turkish court sentenced Brunson to three years in jail - but freed him because of the time he had already spent in detention.

Additional espionage charges against him were also dropped by the court.

"Pastor Brunson was being held improperly and inappropriately. He was never guilty of anything," Shaheen said. "There are thousands of people in Turkish jails under questionable means and circumstances including many other Americans."

"I feel he was falsely imprisoned from day one and there was not any real evidence the charges against him were in any way real."

A member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees, Shaheen said Turkey was a critical ally and this was an important step in mending what had become a broken relationship.

Shaheen and Graham visited Brunson in prison last June after meeting privately with Erdogan to plead for his release.

"He had been moved to a better prison and had been under a doctor's care when we saw him and we were encouraged that he was in better health than he had been," Shaheen recalled.

"We also felt good because they opened the prison up on a Saturday for us to see him when they didn't usually allow that."

Shaheen revealed for the first time that she got heavily involved in this matter after a New Hampshire resident who once taught Brunson asked for her help.

"What's great about that is it shows how one person who reaches out and cares about the well-being of someone can make a real difference," Shaheen said.

Trump remarked how this success was a bipartisan one and Shaheen welcomed that part of the achievement.

"This is the way we are most effective and how we can address the problems the American people face," Shaheen said.

"It's a lesson I learned in the state Senate in New Hampshire."

Shaheen said national security and diplomacy are issues on which members of both parties often do come together.

She and Tillis are co-chairs of the NATO Observer Group and "are on the same page" on its goals, she said.

"This was the way government should work. We should put the needs of our citizens first. We should work across party lines and branches of government," Shaheen said.

"I would want to know that if I was falsely imprisoned that people would work across party lines to get me out."