Turkish government releases Pastor Brunson after alleged deal with US

American Pastor Andrew Brunson.

The Turkish government has released American evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson after reportedly reaching a secret deal with the US administration.

A Turkish court ruled on Friday to free Brunson, who has been at the center of a bitter diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington, a move that could be the first step toward mending ties between the NATO allies.

The court imposed a 3 year, one month sentence on Brunson, who had been charged with terrorism offenses, but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.

According to a report by Reuters, witnesses said Brunson wept as the decision was announced. Before the judge’s ruling, the pastor told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey.”

The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and was arrested two years ago, had led to US tariffs against Turkey and drawn condemnation from President Donald Trump.

Brunson was charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of the Gülen movement. Brunson denied the accusation, and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Earlier, secret witnesses told the court that testimony attributed to them against the pastor was inaccurate, heightening expectations that Brunson could be released and returned to the United States.

Brunson appeared in the courtroom in the western coastal town of Aliağa wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie. His wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ seating area as he listened to testimony from defense and prosecution witnesses.

“I do not understand how this is related to me,” Brunson said after the judge questioned one of a series of witnesses. He said the judge was asking the witness about incidents he was not involved in.

Brunson’s lawyer said late on Friday that Brunson was on a plane home to the United States after a Turkish court ruled for his release. “We’re grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson,” said lawyer Jay Sekulow in a statement. “The fact that he is now on a plane to the United States can only be viewed as a significant victory for Pastor Brunson and his family.”

The White House expected Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the US, two years after he was detained, according to two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter, NBC News reported on Thursday afternoon.

Under an agreement senior Trump administration officials recently reached with Turkey, Brunson was supposed to be released after certain charges against him were dropped at his next court hearing, scheduled for Friday, the senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said. The Washington Post reported that the charges were to be reduced to allow him to be sentenced to time already served, or to be transferred to serve any remaining sentence in the United States.

The negotiated deal includes the lifting of US sanctions — both threatened and implemented — against Turkey, according to the Post.

After a failed agreement for Brunson’s release last summer, US President Donald Trump levied sanctions on two senior Turkish cabinet ministers, and Erdoğan reciprocated against senior US officials. Trump then authorized a doubling of existing US steel and aluminum tariffs against Turkey.

The US Congress, where anti-Turkey feeling over the Brunson case has been high, passed legislation freezing the sale of 100 F-35 aircraft to Turkey and giving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — who opposed the freeze — until next month to prepare a report on how it would impact US security and the defense industry.

The Turkish government accused Brunson of helping terrorist groups, charges he denied. The Trump administration aggressively pushed for his release, saying he was wrongfully detained. In July, Turkey released Brunson from prison and moved him to house arrest. He faced a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison if convicted.

An agreement on Brunson’s release was advanced in discussions last month between Turkish and US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, during the gathering of world leaders for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said.

In remarks to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America on Wednesday, Pompeo had referenced Brunson’s situation, saying that releasing the pastor would be the “humanitarian thing for Turkey to do.”

“I am very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson will, he and his wife will be able to return to the United States,” Pompeo added.

Brunson is an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina. He has spent more than two decades living in Turkey, where he ran the Resurrection Church in the western city of İzmir. He was detained in Turkey in October 2016 and charged with helping the Gülen movement, a faith-based group Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accuses of orchestrating a failed coup earlier that year. The movement denies any involvement in the abortive putsch.

Brunson’s imprisonment had strained the relationship between the Trump administration and Turkey, a NATO ally. Brunson’s release was viewed as more likely since his court hearing came at a time when Turkey was seeking US support for challenging Saudi Arabia in response to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Brunson’s release “could reset Trump and Erdoğan’s relationship,” Çağaptay had said.

Administration officials said the release of Brunson, as well as other Americans, would be a significant step toward mending ties between the US and Turkey.

“This administration has been actively engaged in seeking Pastor Brunson’s release for months, along with NASA scientist Serkan Gölge and employees of the US mission in Turkey,” the third senior administration official said. “A positive development in the cases of Pastor Brunson, Serkan Gölge and local employees of the US mission in Turkey would do much to improve confidence and to restore the bilateral relationship.”

Vice President Mike Pence was a leading critic of Brunson’s detention and an advocate for his immediate release.

Trump publicly called for Erdoğan to release Brunson.

“A total disgrace that Turkey will not release a respected U.S. Pastor, Andrew Brunson, from prison. He has been held hostage far too long,” Trump wrote on Twitter in July. “He has done nothing wrong, and his family needs him!”

According to the Hürriyet newspaper, Erdoğan told reporters earlier this week when asked about Brunson, “I must obey whatever the decision the judiciary gives.”

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