Turkey frees U.S. pas­tor held on ter­ror­ism charges

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - EZGI ERKOYUN EMILY WITHER

Evan­ge­list de­nies links to coup at­tempt as court de­ci­sion pro­vides open­ing to ease strained re­la­tions with Trump

The Amer­i­can evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian pas­tor at the cen­tre of a row be­tween Ankara and Wash­ing­ton ar­rived at his home in Turkey on Fri­day af­ter a Turk­ish court ruled he could go free, a move that may sig­nal a ma­jor step to­wards mend­ing ties be­tween the al­lies.

An­drew Brun­son ar­rived at his house in the Aegean coastal prov­ince of Izmir, a Reuters cam­era­man said, hav­ing left the court­house in a con­voy of cars.

He was re­leased af­ter the court sen­tenced him to three years and 11⁄ months in prison on ter­ror­ism charges, but said he would not serve any fur­ther jail time. Mr. Brun­son, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was jailed two years ago and has been un­der house ar­rest since July.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who had im­posed sanc­tions on Turkey in an at­tempt to se­cure Mr. Brun­son’s free­dom, tweeted: “PAS­TOR BRUN­SON JUST RE­LEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

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.”

Af­ter the rul­ing, Mr. Brun­son’s lawyer told re­porters the pas­tor was likely to leave Turkey. The U.S. mil­i­tary planned to fly him home on a mil­i­tary air­craft, of­fi­cials told Reuters.

The diplo­matic stand­off over Mr. Brun­son, who led a small con­gre­ga­tion at the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church, ac­cel­er­ated a de­cline in Turkey’s cur­rency, wors­en­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis.

Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

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

Mr. 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, N.C.

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

The heav­ily con­ser­va­tive con­stituency voted over­whelm­ingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Mr. Brun­son a “great Chris­tian”, and Vice-Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, the White House’s top emis­sary to evan­gel­i­cals, had urged Amer­i­cans to pray for Mr. 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,” Mr. Pence wrote on Twit­ter. “@Se­condLady and I look for­ward to wel­com­ing Pas­tor Brun­son and his coura­geous wife Norine back to the USA!”

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

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

With Mr. Brun­son’s re­lease, at­ten­tion may now turn to the fate of a Turk­ish-U.S. na­tional and for­mer NASA sci­en­tist in jail in Turkey on ter­ror­ism charges, as well as three lo­cal em­ploy­ees of the U.S. con­sulate who have also been de­tained. Wash­ing­ton wants all these peo­ple re­leased, while Ankara has de­manded the ex­tra­di­tion of Mr. Gulen. The cleric, who has 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 U.S. ef­fort to put pres­sure on its courts.

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

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