Turks tipped to free US pastor
Washington and Ankara were expected to begin mending relations with the likely release last night of US pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest in Turkey, where he has faced terrorism and espionage charges.
Mr Brunson, who has been held since 2016, was due to appear in court near the coastal town of Izmir, where a judge is expected to drop some charges and, at most, sentence him to time already served, sources said yesterday.
One source said Mr Brunson — who arrived at Aliaga prison court in a secured convoy before daybreak — also could be released on technical grounds.
In any case, he is expected to be handed back his passport and put on a plane to the US — an outcome people close to him said they would consider a victory.
Officials on both sides urged caution, warning a previous deal between Turkey and the US for Mr Brunson’s release had collapsed at the last minute.
The evangelical pastor from North Carolina faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted. Mr Brunson, 50, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, rejects the charges and strongly maintains his innocence. He is one of thousands caught up in a crackdown that followed a failed coup in July 2016.
Prosecutors accuse Mr Brunson of committing crimes on behalf of terrorist groups, linking him to Kurdish militants and a network led by a US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.
His release could help improve relations between Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at a sensitive time in bilateral relations, as Ankara is seeking Washington’s support to confront Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.
Mr Brunson’s release would represent a boon for Mr Trump and the Republican Party as they try to hold off a Democratic surge in next month’s elections and retain control of congress. Mr Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence have made securing Mr Brunson’s freedom a priority, and his case has become a cause for evangelical Christians.
“The President and the administration have done an excellent job of not only keeping the issue of Pastor Brunson’s detention at the forefront but also using all available means to obtain his release,” said Jay Sekulow, who is Mr Brunson’s lawyer.
People close to Mr Brunson were hopeful he would be released after last night’s hearing, but noted they have thought he was close to being released before, only to see Turkey prolong his detention.
Yet economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration appear to be biting, giving rise to renewed optimism that Turkey may relent and send him back to the US, one person close to the Brunson family said. “The economic impact has been pretty significant,” this person said.
Mr Brunson’s detention has been one of several impediments to the US relationship with Turkey, where a large state-owned bank, Halkbank, is accused by American prosecutors of helping Iran evade sanctions and faces potential fines in the billions of dollars.
Mr Erdogan had initially hoped he could use Mr Brunson as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the fine, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute.
But the US slapped sanctions on Turkish government officials this year, sending the country’s financial markets into a tailspin.
He said Mr Erdogan has been seeking a way to repair relations with the US, but Turkey’s confrontation with Saudi Arabia has been a catalyst of sorts, since it highlighted the fact that Ankara has few allies in the region.
A car carrying American pastor Andrew Brunson, second left, arrives at the Aliaga prison court ahead of his hearing last night
Kanye West greets first daughter Ivanka Trump and shows Donald Trump a hydrogen plane over Resolute