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Trial of U.S. pastor facing up to 35 years in prison set to start Monday in Turkey

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ISTANBUL — The trial of a North Carolina pastor facing up to 35 years in prison over terrorism charges is set to begin in Turkey on Monday, posing another obstacle to U.S. relations with its strategically important NATO ally.

Andrew Brunson — a 50-year-old evangelical pastor from the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina — has spent the last 23 years living in Turkey, where he and his wife raised their daughter and two sons.

According to the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing him in the U.S., he was running the Resurrection Church in the western city of Izmir — where the trial will take place — and applying for permanent residency when he was detained in October 2016.

“I’m not sure exactly why my dad was chosen. He’s a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the U.S.”

“I’m not sure exactly why my dad was chosen. He’s a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the U.S.”

Brunson’s daughter, Jacqueline Furnari, told NBC News her family is happy the case is moving forward but is concerned it could drag on further.

“I’m not sure exactly why my dad was chosen,” she said. “He’s a pawn in a political game between Turkey and the U.S.”

Furnari, who has not seen her father since last August, says Brunson’s mood is improving and he is gaining back some of the 50 pounds he lost while in detention.

“The start was very, very difficult. It was a dark time,” she said. “This week he’s anxious… but altogether he’s doing a lot better.”

She added, “He’s done nothing wrong, he’s a peaceful loving man, he’s a pastor. These charges are absolutely absurd.”

Brunson was arrested during the mass detentions and firings soon after a failed July 2016 coup attempt, initially on immigration violation charges.

He’s now charged with connections to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group which Turkey and the U.S. deem a terrorist organization, as well as links with the network of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara blames for carrying out the coup attempt.

The indictment also charges Brunson with revealing state secrets, alleging that he communicated with people who gathered details about gas and railway stations, information which would have strategic importance during a war or occupation.

The indictment states the charges are based on evidence obtained from Brunson’s phone, as well as from witnesses given pseudonyms to mask their identity.

Halavurt said he’s not been told who the witnesses are and that Brunson denies the charges.

He denies any wrongdoing, and the United States has repeatedly demanded his release.

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In March, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Brunson’s wife during a trip to Turkey to visit President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A senior U.S. official told NBC News, “We are following this case closely, and since his arrest, we have visited Mr. Brunson regularly. We believe that Turkey is a state of law, and we have faith in the Turkish people’s commitment to justice.”

Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback has been to Turkey and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is expected to attend the trial at some point.

After visiting Brunson in prison in March, Tillis stated that “Pastor Brunson is being used as a political pawn by some elements of the Turkish government.”

Last September, Erdogan said that Turkey would send Brunson back to the U.S. if Washington carried out an extradition request for Gulen.

“Give him (Gulen) to us,” Erdogan said. “Then we will try him (Brunson) and give him to you.”

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Washington said it did not receive sufficient evidence showing Gulen’s connection to the coup attempt.

The pastor’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told NBC News that while Brunson was physically fine, he was anxious for his day in court.

Halavurt said he expects his client to be released on Monday over what he called “very weak” accusations, but added that recent cases have shown that may not happen.

“This is a special, delicate trial and if we look at other trials that have been held in this last period, we see that some people have been condemned without enough evidence, so it’s a risk we have to consider.”

Since the failed coup, Turkey has jailed over 50,000 people including journalists, academics and judges. The purges have led to widespread criticism of the country’s authoritarian president.

Soner Tufan, a spokesperson of the Association of Protestant Churches who had attended Brunson’s church, said Brunson was not connected to any political organizations.

“He’s not guilty, he’s not a spy, he’s not working for CIA or other kind of organization,” Tufan said. “He’s just a [pastor].”

Multiple other U.S. citizens are being detained in Turkey, including NASA scientist Serkan Golge, who was sentenced to over seven years in prison on terrorism charges.

The State Department said it was deeply concerned by the conviction.

Relations with Turkey were strained further recently after it launched an offensive in northern Syria in January against the Kurdish YPG militia, which is allied with the U.S.

Turkey is a crucial ally to the U.S. in the region, hosting an air base which NATO has used for strikes against the so-called Islamic State in Syria.

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German election frontrunner Olaf Scholz: Who is the man likely to replace Chancellor Angela Merkel? | World News

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After 16 years of Angela Merkel in the chancellorship, Germany can be said to value leaders who are regarded as strong and steady.

It is something the leading contender in Sunday’s election, Olaf Scholz, is counting on as he bids to become the natural successor to the outgoing leader – despite being from a different party.

The pair know each other well – Social Democrat Mr Scholz has been Ms Merkel’s finance minister and vice chancellor in the uneasy “grand coalition” of conservatives and members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) she had to bring together to form a government in 2017.

Before entering government, when he was an MP, Mr Scholz was often seen around then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Pic: AP
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Before entering government, when he was an MP, Mr Scholz was often seen around then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Pic: AP

The latest polls suggest Mr Scholz has come from behind in his bid to replace her, while the main conservative candidate Armin Laschet has fallen behind.

If Mr Scholz wins, it will be a vindication of his attempt to follow in Ms Merkel’s footsteps.

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Germany election: What’s at stake?

Although frequently labelled “boring”, the 63-year-old finance minister has been keen to present himself as a man of action who can be trusted to get things done.

And, despite promising continuity and stability, Mr Scholz has distanced himself from his former conservative partners in the coalition, claiming they are too cozy with business.

A lawyer by background, he is a widely experienced politician having served in some of the highest offices at local and national level.

He first entered the German parliament at the age of 40 in 1998, and, amid spells of various lengths within the government of the city-state of Hamburg, has been high up in the federal government or SPD for the last 20 years.

Mr Scholz served as minister for labour in Angela Merkel's first cabinet after his appointment in 2007. Pic: AP
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Mr Scholz served as minister for labour in Angela Merkel’s first cabinet after his appointment in 2007. Pic: AP

He was mayor of Hamburg from 2011 to 2018 but has also held the position of SPD chief whip, SPD deputy leader, and minister of labour and social affairs in Ms Merkel’s first government, as well as his current roles.

During the pandemic, Mr Scholz won praise from the International Monetary Fund for his measures, having ditched a balanced budget at home to protect the German economy and helped create the EU’s COVID recovery fund, despite Ms Merkel’s initial resistance.

Amid soaring German inflation and pressure from his conservative adversaries, he has been keen to keep the activities of the European Central Bank (ECB) separate to the government’s handling of the German economy, pointing to the need to respect the ECB’s independence, following the lead of his chancellor.

As mayor of Hamburg, one of the events Mr Scholtz presided over was hosting then prime minister David Cameron on an official visit to Germany just before a vital EU summit in 2016
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As mayor of Hamburg, one of the events Mr Scholz presided over was hosting then prime minister David Cameron on an official visit to Germany just before a vital EU summit in 2016

He also cooperated with France to drive forward efforts to introduce a global minimum rate of corporate tax and new tax rules for tech giants.

His combination of prudence and vital assistance amid the crisis have paid off.

A snap poll after the last TV debate showed Mr Scholz won a clean sweep, despite conservative candidate Armin Laschet attacking his record on tackling money laundering.

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Is Germany as green as it would like to think?

From the moderate wing of his party and thoroughly versed in the realities of German government, if he wins he will set about the task of building a coalition, probably with the Greens, but perhaps of the grand coalition type that Ms Merkel has lived happily with repeatedly, alongside her CDU party.

During the COVID era, he has underwritten his left-of-centre credentials with a significant stimulus package but, in opposition to some on the left of his party – which is similar to the UK’s Labour movement – he wants Germany to rein in debt by 2023, reintroducing strict limits on federal and state government spending.

Olaf Scholz (L) is said to have won all three TV debates against the Greens' chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock and CDU's candidate Armin Laschet. Pic: AP
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Olaf Scholz (L) is said to have won all three TV debates against the Greens’ chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock and CDU’s candidate Armin Laschet. Pic: AP

His claim to be as calm and collected as his potential predecessor may be on shakier ground than he admits, having shown a tetchiness in the past in his dealings with the media and rioters during the Hamburg G20 event, but he is adamant he is driven by pragmatism, not personality.

“I’m applying for chancellor, not to be a circus ringmaster,” he told women’s magazine Brigitte.

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Taliban prisons chief says the group will resume executions and amputations as punishment | World News

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One of the founders of the Taliban has said that the group will resume executions and amputations as punishment.

Mullah Nooruddin Turabi warned the world against interfering in the plans, which come just weeks after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Western troops.

Mr Turabi, who was chief enforcer of the Taliban’s harsh interpretation of Islamic law when they last ruled the country in the late 1990s, said: “Everyone criticised us for the punishments in the stadium, but we have never said anything about their laws and their punishments.

“No one will tell us what our laws should be.

“We will follow Islam and we will make our laws on the Quran.”

Taliban fighters outside Kabul University, Afghanistan. Pic: AP
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The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August. Pic: AP

Previously, convicted murderers were shot in the head by the victim’s family who also had the choice of accepting money and allowing the offender to live.

Convicted thieves had their hand amputated and highway robbers had a hand and a foot amputated.

Mr Turabi told the Associated Press that amputating hands “is very necessary for security”, adding that during the Taliban’s previous rule, such harsh punishments helped bring “complete safety” to the country.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Friday that the punishments “would constitute clear gross abuses of human rights”.

“We stand firm with the international community to hold perpetrators of these, of any such abuses, accountable,” he added.

“We are watching very closely, and not just listening to the announcements that come out but watching very closely as the Taliban conducts itself.”

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How popular is the Taliban in Afghanistan?

Taliban fighters have already revived an old punishment of public humiliation for men accused of small thefts.

At least twice in the past week men in Kabul have reportedly been put on the back of a pickup truck, their hands tied, and driven around the city.

But despite the revival of the old punishments, Mr Turabi insisted: “We are changed from the past.”

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Previously, the judiciary was heavily-influenced by hardline Islamic clerics but Mr Turabi said judges, including women, would adjudicate future cases.

He also said the Taliban would allow technology such as mobile phones, TV, photos and video “because this is the necessity of the people and we are serious about it.”

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Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou released after reaching agreement with US prosecutors | Science & Tech News

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Huawei’s chief financial officer has reached a deal with US prosecutors that allows her to return to China.

Meng Wanzhou, who is also the daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei, has been in Canada since she was arrested at Vancouver’s airport in December 2018.

Her arrest followed an extradition warrant issued by the US for a range of charges relating to alleged breaches of sanctions against Iran.

But the deal means the US Department of Justice will drop its request to extradite her to the US and fraud charges against her will be dismissed in December 2022 – exactly four years after her arrest.

This will depend on her complying with certain conditions, including accepting responsibility for misrepresenting her company’s business dealings in Iran.

Meng’s defence lawyer Michelle Levin said she expected Meng to adhere to the conditions, adding: “We’re very pleased that in the meantime she can go home to her family”.

The details were confirmed during a court hearing, with Meng appearing via video from the Vancouver mansion where she was bailed after her arrest.

The court revoked all bail conditions, and Meng left for China shortly afterwards.

Before she left, Meng said: “Over the last three years my life has been turned upside down.

“It was a disruptive time for me as a mother, a wife and as a company executive.

“But I believe every cloud has a silver lining. It really was an invaluable experience in my life.

“I will never forget all the good wishes I received.”

About an hour after Meng’s departure, Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau said that two Canadians arrested by Chinese authorities were also on their way home.

Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor had been accused of spying and were arrested in China in December 2018 – shortly after Meng was arrested in Canada.

Mr Trudeau said: “These two men have been through an unbelievably difficult ordeal. For the past 1,000 days, they have shown strength, perseverance and grace and we are all inspired by that.”

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