Turk­ish court con­victs U.S. pas­tor of ter­ror yet frees him

The Niagara Falls Review - - Canada & World - ZEYNEP BIL­GIN­SOY

ALIAGA, TURKEY — A Turk­ish court on Fri­day convicted an Amer­i­can pas­tor of ter­ror links but re­leased him from house ar­rest and al­lowed him to leave the coun­try, a move that’s likely to ease ten­sions be­tween Turkey and the United States.

The court near the western city of Izmir sen­tenced North Carolina na­tive An­drew Brun­son to three years, one month and 15 days in pri­son for al­legedly help­ing ter­ror groups. But since the 50-year-old evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor had al­ready spent nearly two years in de­ten­tion, Turk­ish law al­lowed him to re­main free with time served.

An ear­lier charge of es­pi­onage against him was dropped.

Brun­son, a na­tive of North Carolina whose de­ten­tion had sparked a diplo­matic dis­pute be­tween the two NATO al­lies, had re­jected the es­pi­onage and ter­ror­re­lated charges and strongly main­tained his in­no­cence.

Brun­son had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges. With tears in his eyes, he hugged his wife, Norine

Lyn, as he awaited the de­ci­sion Fri­day.

Af­ter the verdict, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted he was pray­ing for Brun­son, say­ing he “WILL BE HOME SOON!”

Lawyer Is­mail Cem Halavurt said Brun­son was ex­pected to leave Turkey for the U.S., but it was not clear when. His lawyer said the elec­tronic an­kle bracelet mon­i­tor­ing his house ar­rest was re­moved. Brun­son went back to his home in Izmir af­ter the court pro­ceed­ing.

Wash­ing­ton had re­peat­edly called for Brun­son’s re­lease and in Au­gust had slapped sanc­tions on Turkey.

But a top Turk­ish of­fi­cial crit­i­cized Trump’s tweets claim­ing that he was “work­ing hard” to get the pas­tor’s re­lease. Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor, Fahret­tin Al­tun, re­peated the pres­i­dent’s stance that Turkey would not bow to threats of sanc­tions and said the court’s rul­ing Fri­day proved the ju­di­ciary’s in­de­pen­dence.

Brun­son, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thou­sands caught in a wide­spread Turk­ish gov­ern­ment crack­down that fol­lowed a failed coup in July 2016.

He was ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of ter­ror groups and of al­leged links to out­lawed Kur­dish mil­i­tants and to a net­work led by a U.S.-based Turk­ish cleric, Fethul­lah Gulen, who Turkey claims or­ches­trated the coup at­tempt. Gulen de­nies the claims. “I am an in­no­cent man. I love Je­sus. I love Turkey,” Brun­son told the court Fri­day, speak­ing in Turk­ish.

Ear­lier, the court called two wit­nesses fol­low­ing tips from wit­ness Levent Kalkan, who had pre­vi­ously ac­cused Brun­son of aid­ing ter­ror groups. The new wit­nesses did not con­firm Kalkan’s ac­cu­sa­tions. An­other wit­ness for the pros­e­cu­tion said she did not know Brun­son.

The pas­tor, who is orig­i­nally from Black Moun­tain, N.C., led a small con­gre­ga­tion in the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church. He was im­pris­oned for nearly two years be­fore be­ing placed un­der house ar­rest on July 25 for health rea­sons.

Tony Perkins, the com­mis­sioner for the U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom, said he wel­comed the court’s de­ci­sion Fri­day along with “the mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who have been pray­ing for Pas­tor Brun­son’s re­lease.”

Mem­bers of the Christ Com­mu­nity Church in Mon­treat, N.C., were over­joyed at Brun­son’s re­lease. Spokesper­son Debi Forester said the church’s Rev. Richard White has been with the Brun­son fam­ily in Turkeyand the U.S. Con­sulate is han­dling Brun­son’s travel ar­range­ments to re­turn to the United States.

She quotes White as say­ing the group is “all just shout­ing ‘Hal­lelu­jah!’ and do­ing the happy dance.”

Wash­ing­ton had im­posed sanc­tions on two Turk­ish of­fi­cials and dou­bled tar­iffs on Turk­ish steel and alu­minum im­ports in Au­gust to push its de­mands for the pas­tor’s re­lease.

Er­do­gan had re­sisted that U.S. de­mands, in­sist­ing that Turk­ish courts are in­de­pen­dent. But he had pre­vi­ously un­der­mined that stance, sug­gest­ing a pos­si­ble swap of Brun­son for Gulen.

Turkey has de­manded Gulen’s ex­tra­di­tion but so far U.S. of­fi­cials say Turkey has not pro­vided suf­fi­cient rea­son for U.S. of­fi­cials to ex­tra­dite the cleric.

An­drew Brun­son

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