Freed US pastor flying home from Turkey after case sparked crisis

VIDEO: REUTERS
VIDEO: REUTERS
Andrew Brunson is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016.
Andrew Brunson is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016.PHOTO: AFP

ALIAGA (AFP, REUTERS) - An American pastor held for two years in Turkey was flying home to the United States after a court on Friday (Oct 12) freed him in a case that sparked a crisis in Ankara’s ties with Washington and trouble for its economy.

The court in the western town of Aliaga convicted Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail, an AFP correspondent said.

However, he was released taking into account time served and his good conduct during the trial, with the court lifting his house arrest and overseas travel ban.

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.

US President Donald Trump had pressed Turkey to release Brunson, who has become a cause celebre for Trump’s conservative Christian base. Trump 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.”

The president opened the campaign rally by telling supporters he was “proud to report” Brunson’s release.

“I think he’s going to be in great shape,” Trump said.

Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson’s freedom, earlier tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!” 

Brunson was released after the court sentenced him to over three years in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time. Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was jailed two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey.” 

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who led a small congregation at the Izmir Resurrection Church, accelerated a sell-off in Turkey’s currency, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.

Brunson’s wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors’ area.

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Brunson’s mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news.

“We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world,” she said by telephone from her home in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump’s ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress.

The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, had urged Americans to pray for Brunson.

“We thank God for answered prayers and commend the efforts of @SecPompeo & @StateDept in supporting Pastor Brunson and his family during this difficult time,” Pence wrote on Twitter.“@SecondLady and I look forward to welcoming Pastor Brunson and his courageous wife Norine back to the USA!” 

US broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release. US Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, told Reuters that active engagement by Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo contributed to Brunson’s release.

“A lot of factors played into this,” Tillis said, adding the United States was trying to “get back to a point of a positive relationship” with Turkey.

 
 
 
 

The White House did not comment beyond Trump’s and Pence’s tweeted statements.

The lira stood at 5.9225 to the dollar at 1700 GMT, slightly weaker on the day after firming 3 percent on Thursday on expectations that Brunson would be freed.

NATO ALLIES 

Relations between the two Nato allies are also under strain over US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defence system, and the US jailing of a executive at a Turkish state bank in an Iran sanctions-busting case.

With Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-US national and former Nasa scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as three local employees of the US consulate who have also been detained.

Washington wants all these people released, while Ankara has demanded the extradition of Gulen. The cleric, who was lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, denies any role in the attempted coup.

Friday’s decision could be a first step to ease tensions, although Turkey’s presidency took aim at what it said was a prolonged US. effort to put pressure on its courts.

“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring US efforts to mount pressure on Turkey’s independent court system for some time,” Fahrettin Altun, the presidency’s communications director, said.

Further moves which have been discussed include the return to Turkey of bank executive Mehmet Hakan Attila to serve out his sentence, the release of the US consular staff, and agreement that the US Treasury avoid draconian steps against Halkbank , the state lender.

“Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person,” Altun, the Turkish official, said.

"We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will.”