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

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - By Zeynep Bil­gin­soy

ALIAGA, TURKEY >> A Turk­ish court on Fri­day con­victed an Amer­i­can pas­tor on ter­ror charges 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 An­drew Brun­son to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison for al­legedly help­ing ter­ror groups. But since the evan­gel­i­cal pas­tor had al­ready spent nearly two years in de­ten­tion, Turk­ish law al­lowed him to re­main free with time served.

The 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.

The 50-year-old na­tive of North Carolina 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.

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 for mon­i­tor­ing was re­moved. Brun­son was seen go­ing back to his home in Izmir from the court.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald J. Trump tweeted he was pray­ing for Brun­son and an­nounced his re­lease, say­ing “WILL BE HOME SOON!”

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

But a top Turk­ish of­fi­cial crit­i­cized Trump’s tweet and Amer­i­can pres­sures for the pas­tor’s re­lease. Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Fahret­tin Al­tun re­peated the pres­i­dent’s mes­sage that Turkey would not bow to threats of sanc­tions and said the court’s rul­ing 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 gov­ern­ment crack­down that fol­lowed a failed coup against the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment in July 2016.

He was ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of ter­ror groups and of al­leged links to out­lawed Kur­dish mil­i­tants and a net­work led by a U.S.based Turk­ish cleric who is ac­cused of or­ches­trat­ing the coup at­tempt.

“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, North Carolina, led a small con­gre­ga­tion in the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church. He was im­pris­oned for nearly two years — de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016 and for­mally ar­rested in De­cem­ber that year — 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.”

Wash­ing­ton im­posed sanc­tions on two Turk­ish of­fi­cials and dou­bled tar­iffs on Turk­ish steel and alu­minum im­ports in Au­gust. Those moves, cou­pled with con­cerns over the gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic man­age­ment, helped trig­ger a Turk­ish cur­rency cri­sis.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan had re­sisted U.S. de­mands for Brun­son’s re­lease, in­sist­ing that Turk­ish courts are in­de­pen­dent. But he had pre­vi­ously sug­gested a pos­si­ble swap of Brun­son for the Penn­syl­va­nia res­i­dent Fethul­lah Gulen — the cleric that Er­do­gan has ac­cused of be­ing be­hind the coup at­tempt.

AP PHOTO/EM­RAH GUREL

Turk­ish se­cu­rity of­fi­cials stand out­side a court­house be­fore a con­voy with US pas­tor An­drew Brun­son sit­ting in­side a car ar­rives for his trial in Izmir, Turkey, early.

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