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Turkey court frees pastor after crisis with US

A Turkish court rejected another appeal to free US pastor Andrew Brunson, whose detention has sparked a major crisis in Ankara's ties with Washington, his lawyer said
- (AFP/File)
'My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson and we hope to have him safely back home soon!' Trump tweeted

A Turkish court on Friday freed an American pastor held for the last two years, in a case that sparked a crisis in Turkey's ties with the United States and trouble for its economy.

The Turkish court ordered the release of Andrew Brunson whose detention for the last two years on terror charges caused a crisis in relations between NATO allies Ankara and Washington.

Brunson, who was running a small evangelical Protestant church in the western port city of Izmir, was detained for two years, under house arrest and was banned from leaving the country.

Brunson, who was first detained in October 2016, faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of aiding terrorist groups and espionage. Prosecutors then demanded a sentence of up to 10 years.

He was convicted on charges of aiding terrorist groups while not being a member of them. Brunson and US officials insisted he is innocent of all charges.

"I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey," he said in his final defense.

When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine.

"This is the day our family has been praying for -- I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States," Brunson said in a statement released by the American Center for Law and Justice, a group that works on Christian legal cases and which represented Brunson.

The court in the Western town of Aliaga lifted the house arrest and travel ban -- allowing the pastor to leave Turkey and return to the United States -- though it handed him a suspended sentence of three years, one month and 15 days in jail, taking into account the time he already served and good behavior in the trial.

After briefly going back to his home in the nearby city of Izmir to collect belongings, Brunson was driven to Izmir airport where he boarded a US military plane.

He was en route to the US air base of Ramstein in Germany, from where he would head onwards back to the United States, his lawyer Cem Halavurt told AFP.

US President Donald Trump -- who had pressed Turkey to release Brunson, who has become a cause celebre for Trump's conservative Christian base -- said he would meet the pastor as soon as he returns.

"Good news, Pastor Brunson is in the air," Trump told reporters as he arrived in Cincinnati on a campaign stop ahead of congressional elections. "He is coming to the Oval Office, most likely on Saturday."

Typically a suspended sentence effectively finds the defendant guilty but freezes the prison sentence, instead imposing a probationary period that requires the defendant to abstain from such illegal activity.

STR (AFP)

He was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them. Brunson and US officials insisted he is innocent of all charges.

"I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey," he said in his final defence.

When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine.

Secret deal saves pastor?

On Thursday, NBC reported that the US and Turkey reached a secret deal for the release of the North Carolina pastor amid growing anticipation of his release in recent months as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton advanced negotiations with Ankara.

While the details of the agreement reached on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September have yet to be revealed, the release is said to be conditioned on the US' easing of economic sanctions against Turkey.

But Turkey insists the judiciary is independent and US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was "not aware" of any such deal.

Erdogan, who has in the past taken aim at Brunson, appeared to distance himself from the case in his latest comments earlier this week, saying he could not interfere in judicial affairs.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK (AFP)

The resumption of the trial came at a sensitive time for the Turkish leadership, which is under global scrutiny over how it handles the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared at Riyadh's consulate in Istanbul.

Brunson's detention caused not just one of the worst diplomatic rows of recent times between the NATO allies, but also led to a crash in the Turkish lira, which exposed Turkey's economic fragility.

Relations were further strained after he was put under house arrest and Washington's decision to impose sanctions on two Turkish ministers, and double steel and aluminium tariffs in August, sparking a dramatic fall in the value of the Turkish lira.

If the Brunson issue is resolved to Washington's satisfaction, it could help the two sides coordinate their Saudi policy more closely.

"Working very hard on Pastor Brunson!" US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter immediately after the news broke of the release, likely a reference to a previous tweet by the American president intended to demonstrate his ability to get things done.

"My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon!" he added in another tweet.

(AFP contributed to this report.)

Comments

(1)

Mr. President, now please triple the tariffs so that we can get the remaining Americans held as hostages.

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