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

Waterloo Region Record - - 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 ter­ror-re­lated 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 up 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 at a previous hear­ing had 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 — for­mally ar­rested in De­cem­ber 2016 — 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 Turkey for a day or two and 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.” She says the church will have a wel­come home party for Brun­son some­time.

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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