Turkey frees U.S. pas­tor convicted of ter­ror links

Houston Chronicle - - NATION | WORLD - By Zeynep Bil­gin­soy

IZMIR, 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, re­mov­ing a ma­jor ir­ri­tant in fraught ties be­tween two NATO al­lies that still dis­agree on a host of other is­sues.

The court near the western city of Izmir sen­tenced North Carolina na­tive An­drew Brun­son to just over three years in pri­son for al­legedly help­ing ter­ror groups, but let him go be­cause the 50-year-old evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor had al­ready spent nearly two years in de­ten­tion. An ear­lier charge of es­pi­onage was dropped.

Hours later, Brun­son was trans­ported to Izmir’s air­port and was flown out of Turkey, where he had lived for two decades. He was ex­pected to be flown to the U.S. mil­i­tary hospi­tal in Land­stuhl, Ger­many.

“I love Je­sus. I love Turkey,” an emo­tional Brun­son, who had main­tained he was in­no­cent of all charges, told the court dur­ing Fri­day’s hear­ing. He tear­fully hugged his wife Norine Lyn as he awaited the court de­ci­sion.

“PAS­TOR BRUN­SON JUST RE­LEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!” U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted af­ter the Amer­i­can was driven out of a Turk­ish pri­son. Later, Trump told re­porters that he would meet with him at the Oval Of­fice on Satur­day.

Brun­son’s re­lease was a diplo­matic tri­umph for Trump, who is count­ing on the sup­port of evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians for Repub­li­can can­di­dates ahead of con­gres­sional elec­tions in Novem­ber.

It could also ben­e­fit Turkey, al­low­ing the gov­ern­ment to fo­cus on an es­ca­lat­ing diplo­matic cri­sis over Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Saudi con­trib­u­tor to The Wash­ing­ton Post who went miss­ing more than a week ago and is feared dead af­ter en­ter­ing the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul. Turk­ish of­fi­cials sus­pect Khashoggi was killed in the con­sulate; Saudi of­fi­cials deny it.

Ad­di­tion­ally, Turkey could now hope that the U.S. will lift tar­iffs on Turk­ish steel and alu­minum im­ports, in­ject­ing some con­fi­dence into an econ­omy rat­tled by high in­fla­tion and a moun­tain of for­eign cur­rency debt.

Fri­day’s rul­ing fol­lowed wit­ness tes­ti­mony that seemed to partly un­der­mine the pros­e­cu­tor’s al­le­ga­tions and high­lighted con­cerns that Turkey had been us­ing the U.S. cit­i­zen as diplo­matic lever­age. Turkey bris­tled at sug­ges­tions that its ju­di­cial sys­tem is a for­eign pol­icy in­stru­ment, and has ac­cused the U.S. of try­ing to bend Turk­ish courts to its will with tar­iffs in Au­gust that helped to send the Turk­ish cur­rency into freefall.

Brun­son’s re­lease doesn’t re­solve dis­agree­ments over U.S. sup­port for Kur­dish fight­ers in Syria, as well as a plan by Turkey to buy Rus­sian mis­siles. Turkey is also frus­trated by the re­fusal of the U.S. to ex­tra­dite Fethul­lah Gulen, a Penn­syl­va­ni­abased Mus­lim cleric ac­cused by Turkey of en­gi­neer­ing a 2016 coup at­tempt.

The court dropped an es­pi­onage charge against Brun­son, who had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges against him. He was ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of Gulen as well as Kur­dish mil­i­tants who have been fight­ing the Turk­ish state for decades.

Emre Tazegul / As­so­ci­ated Press

Pas­tor An­drew Brun­son, cen­ter left, and his wife, Norine, ar­rive Fri­day at the air­port in Izmir, Turkey, for a flight to Ger­many af­ter his re­lease.

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