Turkey frees U.S. pas­tor

Trump will meet evan­gel­i­cal ac­cused of spy­ing

Albany Times Union - - FRONT PAGE - By Zeynep Bil­gin­soy

Turk­ish court con­victs pas­tor An­drew Brun­son of ter­ror­ism links and then re­leases him to fly back to the U.S.

An Amer­i­can pas­tor flew out of Turkey Fri­day af­ter a Turk­ish court con­victed him of ter­ror links but freed him from house ar­rest, re­mov­ing a ma­jor ir­ri­tant in fraught ties be­tween two NATO al­lies still strained by dis­agree­ments over Syria, Iran and a host of other is­sues.

The court near 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-yearold 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 more than two decades. He was to be flown to the U.S. mil­i­tary hospi­tal in Land­stuhl, Ger­many, then on to Wash­ing­ton, where he was to meet with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Satur­day.

“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!” Trump tweeted af­ter the Amer­i­can was driven out of a Turk­ish prison in a con­voy. Later, af­ter Brun­son was air­borne, Trump told re­porters the pas­tor had “suf­fered greatly” but was in “very good shape,” and that he would meet with him at the Oval Of­fice.

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 Penn­syl­va­nia-based 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 among tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, mostly Turks, who were caught up in a govern­ment crack­down af­ter the failed coup.

He was ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes on be­half of Gulen as well as Kur­dish mil­i­tants who have been fight­ing the Turk­ish state for decades.

The pas­tor, who is orig­i­nally from Black Moun­tain, North Carolina, was im­pris­oned for nearly two years af­ter be­ing de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016. He was for­mally ar­rested in De­cem­ber of that year and placed un­der house ar­rest on July 25 for health rea­sons.

Bu­lent Kilic / Getty Im­ages

U.S. pas­tor An­drew Craig Brun­son, with his wife Norine Lyn, ar­rives at Ad­nan Men­deres air­port in Izmir on Fri­day af­ter be­ing freed fol­low­ing a two-year de­ten­tion in Turkey that shook re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries.

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