Ankara frees Pas­tor Brun­son early af­ter talks

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

>> ANKARA: An Amer­i­can pas­tor held for two years in Turkey was ex­pected back in the United States yes­ter­day af­ter a court freed him in a case that sparked a cri­sis in Ankara’s ties with Wash­ing­ton and trou­ble for its econ­omy.

The court in the western town of Aliaga con­victed Andrew Brun­son on ter­ror-re­lated charges and sen­tenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail.

How­ever, he was re­leased tak­ing into ac­count time served and his good con­duct dur­ing the trial, with the court lift­ing his house ar­rest and over­seas travel ban.

Af­ter briefly go­ing back to nearby Izmir to col­lect be­long­ings, Mr Brun­son was driven to the city’s air­port where he boarded a US mil­i­tary plane.

Richard Grenell, the US am­bas­sador to Ger­many, later tweeted a pic­ture show­ing Mr Brun­son kiss­ing an Amer­i­can flag he was given at an air base where the plane landed for re­fu­elling.

“He’s al­most home thanks to @re­alDon­aldTrump. When I pre­sented him with the US flag, he im­me­di­ately kissed it. #agrate­ful­na­tion,” wrote Mr Grenell.

The US pres­i­dent had pressed Turkey to re­lease Mr Brun­son, who has be­come a cause cele­bre for Mr Trump’s con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian base.

Mr Trump said he would meet the pas­tor as soon as he re­turns.

“Good news, Pas­tor Brun­son is in the air,” Mr Trump told re­porters as he ar­rived in Cincin­nati on a cam­paign stop ahead of con­gres­sional elec­tions. “He is likely to come to the Oval Of­fice on Satur­day.”

The pres­i­dent opened the rally by telling sup­port­ers he was “proud to re­port” Mr Brun­son’s re­lease.

“I think he’s go­ing to be in great shape,” Mr Trump said.

Mr Brun­son, who was first de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016, faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of aid­ing ter­ror­ist groups and es­pi­onage. Pros­e­cu­tors then de­manded a sen­tence of up to 10 years.

He was con­victed on charges of aid­ing ter­ror­ist groups while not be­ing a mem­ber of them. Mr Brun­son and US of­fi­cials in­sisted he is in­no­cent of all charges.

“I am an in­no­cent man. I love Je­sus. I love Turkey,” he said in his fi­nal de­fence.

When the ver­dict was read out, Mr Brun­son wept and hugged his wife Norine.

Mr Brun­son’s de­ten­tion caused not just one of the worst diplo­matic rows of re­cent times be­tween Nato al­lies Turkey and the US, but also led to a crash in the Turk­ish lira which ex­posed the coun­try’s eco­nomic fragility.

But fur­ther strains re­mained. Af­ter his re­lease, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo urged Turkey to free “quickly” other Amer­i­cans in de­ten­tion.

“The world should know that Mr Trump and the State Depart­ment con­tinue to work hard to bring home all Amer­i­can hostages and those wrong­fully im­pris­oned and de­tained,” Mr Pom­peo tweeted.

NASA sci­en­tist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turk­ish na­tional, was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in Fe­bru­ary on ter­ror charges, a term re­duced to five years last month.

And two Turk­ish em­ploy­ees of US diplo­matic mis­sions re­main in jail. One of them, for­mer Adana con­sulate staffer Hamza Ulu­cay, was on Fri­day de­nied re­lease in a sep­a­rate court hear­ing.

An­thony Skin­ner, di­rec­tor of Mid­dle East and North Africa at the Verisk Maple­croft con­sul­tancy, said that the US and Turkey had plenty of dis­agree­ments be­yond Mr Brun­son.

“The clamp has now been re­moved, which opens the way for bi­lat­eral ne­go­ti­a­tions to ad­dress other sources of dis­agree­ment, but Wash­ing­ton and Ankara still have to nav­i­gate through a mine­field,” Mr Skin­ner said.

He pointed to the or­der by Turkey of Rus­sian S-400 mis­sile de­fence sys­tems which has riled its Western al­lies, as well as Ankara’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to do busi­ness with Iran in de­fi­ance of US sanc­tions.

Turkey is brac­ing for po­ten­tial fines from US au­thor­i­ties over Iran sanc­tions bust­ing by Turk­ish lender Halk­bank, which has al­ready seen the jail­ing of its deputy di­rec­tor gen­eral in the United States.

Mr Brun­son’s re­lease came at a sen­si­tive time for the Turk­ish lead­er­ship, which is un­der global scru­tiny over how it han­dles the case of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi, who dis­ap­peared at Riyadh’s con­sulate in Istanbul last week.

Both Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and Mr Trump have pressed Saudi Ara­bia to ex­plain what hap­pened to Khashoggi.

If Mr Brun­son’s is­sue is re­solved to Wash­ing­ton’s sat­is­fac­tion, it could help the two sides co­or­di­nate their Saudi pol­icy more closely.

Mr Er­do­gan, who has in the past taken aim at Mr Brun­son, ap­peared to dis­tance him­self from the case in his lat­est com­ments ear­lier this week, say­ing he could not in­ter­fere in ju­di­cial affairs.

US broad­caster NBC said that Turkey and the United States had reached a se­cret deal for Mr Brun­son to be re­leased on Fri­day and for some charges against him to be dropped, in ex­change for the US eas­ing “eco­nomic pres­sures” that in­cluded sanc­tions which have ham­mered the lira re­cently.

Mr Trump de­nied any deal, say­ing, “We spoke to Turkey and went through a sys­tem”.

GO­ING BACK HOME: US pas­tor Andrew Craig Brun­son, cen­tre left, ar­rives at Ad­nan Men­deres air­port in Izmir yes­ter­day en-route to the United States.

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