Turk­ish court frees U.S. pas­tor

The preacher’s re­lease af­ter nearly 2 years in jail re­solves key is­sue be­tween the na­tions at a cru­cial time.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Umar Fa­rooq and Laura King laura.king@la­times.com Spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent Fa­rooq re­ported from Is­tan­bul and Times staff writer King from Wash­ing­ton.

IS­TAN­BUL, Turkey — An Amer­i­can Chris­tian preacher was freed by a Turk­ish court Fri­day and was headed home to the United States, where he was ex­pected to meet with Pres­i­dent Trump at the White House on Satur­day.

The free­ing of the Rev. An­drew Brun­son, 50, re­solved a ma­jor ir­ri­tant in U.S.-Turk­ish re­la­tions amid a bur­geon­ing diplo­matic cri­sis over the dis­ap­pear­ance of Saudi-born journalist Ja­mal Khashoggi. Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties say Khashoggi was killed and dis­mem­bered in Saudi Ara­bia’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, Turkey’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal.

The judge’s rul­ing was ex­pected af­ter a re­cent flurry of di­plo­macy, in­clud­ing high-level meet­ings on the side­lines of the United Na­tions Gen­eral As­sem­bly in New York last month. As part of the ne­go­ti­ated ar­range­ments, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion agreed to lift sanc­tions that had been im­posed on Turkey in a bid to win Brun­son’s re­lease.

Brun­son re­turned briefly to his home in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir be­fore board­ing a U.S. mil­i­tary flight to Wash­ing­ton, with a brief stop in Ger­many. The White House said he was ex­pected to land at noon Satur­day at Joint Base An­drews.

Trump told re­porters en route to a rally in Cincin­nati that he hoped to wel­come Brun­son in the Oval Of­fice. “We’re very hon­ored to have him back with us,” he said, adding that the pas­tor had “suf­fered greatly.”

Sev­eral other Amer­i­cans re­main in de­ten­tion in Turkey, though their plight has drawn less at­ten­tion. An exNASA sci­en­tist who holds both Turk­ish and U.S. cit­i­zen­ship, Serkan Golge, is still jailed on ter­ror­ism charges. He is one of more than a dozen dual na­tion­als be­ing held, along with three Turk­ish em­ploy­ees of the U.S. Con­sulate.

With Brun­son’s re­lease, other pieces to the puz­zle may fall into place. An ex­ec­u­tive at a Turk­ish state bank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, is serv­ing a pri­son sen­tence in the United States on a case re­lated to ac­cu­sa­tions that Turkey’s state-owned Halk­bank cir­cum­vented U.S. sanc­tions against Iran. Turkey wants Atilla to be al­lowed to serve the rest of his sen­tence in his home­land.

Brun­son was convicted Fri­day of ter­ror­ism-re­lated charges and sen­tenced to a 37-month jail term, but freed on the ba­sis of time served. He had been held for nearly two years — first de­tained, then im­pris­oned af­ter be­ing for­mally charged, and fi­nally moved to house ar­rest in July for health rea­sons.

Brun­son de­nied any wrong­do­ing, and sup­port­ers said the charges were po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated and false.

His re­lease marks a vic­tory for Trump, who had made it a pri­or­ity for his ad­min­is­tra­tion, as well as for Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan, who has sought to heal the rift with Wash­ing­ton and es­cape the sanc­tions that have bat­tered his na­tion’s econ­omy.

Shortly af­ter the court rul­ing, Trump tweeted tri­umphantly Fri­day in his sig­na­ture all-caps style, “PAS­TOR BRUN­SON JUST RE­LEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

The court­room scene in Aliaga, out­side Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, was emo­tional. Be­fore the judge’s rul­ing, Brun­son de­clared: “I am an in­no­cent man. I love Je­sus. I love Turkey.”

With his wife, Norine, look­ing on, Brun­son cried when the de­ci­sion was read out. The judg­ment averted what could have been a 35year pri­son sen­tence if Brun­son had been convicted of all charges.

The stand­off over Brun­son’s fate was long and tense, with each side ac­cus­ing the other of act­ing in bad faith. Turkey is weath­er­ing a fi­nan­cial cri­sis that was dra­mat­i­cally wors­ened by U.S. sanc­tions, tar­iffs and the threat of fur­ther re­tal­i­a­tion by Wash­ing­ton. The Turk­ish cur­rency, the lira, sta­bi­lized some­what on the eve of the court de­ci­sion as the out­come be­came clear.

Brun­son, who presided over a small con­gre­ga­tion at the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church, has lived in Turkey for more than two decades. He was caught up in a vast na­tion­wide drag­net launched by Er­do­gan af­ter an un­suc­cess­ful coup at­tempt against his lead­er­ship in July 2016.

Er­do­gan ac­cused self-ex­iled cleric Fethul­lah Gulen of fo­ment­ing the coup at­tempt from his com­pound in Penn­syl­va­nia, and tens of thou­sands of Turks have been jailed or purged from their jobs on sus­pi­cion of sup­port­ing him. Er­do­gan’s gov­ern­ment has re­peat­edly de­manded that U.S. au­thor­i­ties ex­pel Gulen, a per­ma­nent U.S. res­i­dent, to face charges in Turkey.

A North Carolina na­tive, Brun­son faced charges of ties not only to Gulen, but to the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party, or PKK, an out­lawed Kur­dish sep­a­ratist group. An ear­lier es­pi­onage charge was dropped.

Re­spond­ing to the news from her home in Black Moun­tain, N.C., Brun­son’s mother, Pam, told the Reuters news agency that “God has an­swered the prayers of so many peo­ple around the world.”

Trump’s po­lit­i­cal base, which in­cludes many evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians, had avidly fol­lowed the case, and the pres­i­dent won plau­dits from them when he took a tough line against Turkey to press for Brun­son’s re­lease. With less than a month un­til the midterm elec­tion, the pas­tor’s re­turn home — and ex­pected ap­pear­ance at the White House — will give Trump a suc­cess to tout on the cam­paign trail.

Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence, an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian who also took a strong in­ter­est in the case, wrote on Twit­ter that he and his wife, Karen, “look for­ward to wel­com­ing Pas­tor Brun­son and his coura­geous wife Norine back to the USA!”

Even with the break­ing of the dead­lock over Brun­son, the United States and Turkey are still at odds over as­pects of Syria’s com­plex civil war. Wash­ing­ton backs Kur­dish fight­ers in north­ern Syria who are viewed by Turkey as a cross-bor­der ver­sion of the PKK.

End­ing the im­passe with Wash­ing­ton over Brun­son could em­bolden Turkey in con­fronting Saudi Ara­bia over Khashoggi. Re­ports have swirled for days that the colum­nist, a U.S. res­i­dent who wrote opin­ion col­umns for the Wash­ing­ton Post, was killed af­ter he en­tered the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul on Oct 2.

Late Thurs­day, the Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that Turk­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tors had au­dio­tapes that left lit­tle doubt that the journalist was beaten and killed in the con­sulate. Saudi Ara­bia says he left the com­pound un­harmed, but has of­fered no proof of that.

Trump, who has cul­ti­vated a close re­la­tion­ship with the Saudi royal fam­ily, has said the mat­ter needs to be in­ves­ti­gated but stopped short of as­sign­ing blame. Some U.S. law­mak­ers are clam­or­ing for steps to pun­ish the king­dom, in­clud­ing cut­ting arms sales, if sus­pi­cions about Khashoggi’s death are borne out.

Soner Ca­gap­tay, di­rec­tor of the Turk­ish pro­gram at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy, a Wash­ing­ton think tank, noted that Er­do­gan also had been re­luc­tant to di­rectly ac­cuse the Saudis, al­though leaks in Turk­ish me­dia as­sert­ing that Khashoggi had been killed and dis­mem­bered were al­most cer­tainly of­fi­cially sanc­tioned.

Er­do­gan, Ca­gap­tay said, “wants to make sure he has U.S. back­ing be­fore he en­ters a long, drawn-out con­flict over the Khashoggi case.”

Emre Tazegul As­so­ci­ated Press

THE REV. An­drew Brun­son, front left, ar­rives at his Turk­ish res­i­dence af­ter a court re­leased him and al­lowed him to leave the coun­try. He is ex­pected to meet Pres­i­dent Trump at the White House on Satur­day.

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