U.S. cit­i­zen re­leased from Turkey in diplo­matic win for Trump


IZMIR, Turkey — An Amer­i­can pas­tor flew out of Turkey on 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 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-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 on Satur­day.

Trump pre­dicted at a cam­paign rally in Ohio that Brun­son will is “go­ing to be in great shape.”

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.

Ear­lier, the court called two wit­nesses fol­low­ing tips from wit­ness Levent Kalkan, who at the 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.

Brun­son again de­nied ac­cu­sa­tions that his church aided Kur­dish mil­i­tants, say­ing he had handed over a list of Syr­ian refugees whom the con­gre­ga­tion had helped and adding that Turk­ish author­i­ties would have iden­ti­fied any ter­ror­ists.

“We helped ev­ery­one, Kurds, Arabs, with­out show­ing any dis­crim­i­na­tion,” he said.

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.

Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan had re­sisted U.S. de­mands for Brun­son’s re­lease, in­sist­ing that the courts are in­de­pen­dent. But he had pre­vi­ously sug­gested a pos­si­ble swap in­volv­ing Brun­son and Gulen, who de­nied he or­ga­nized the coup at­tempt.

Other wit­nesses had not yet tes­ti­fied in Brun­son’s case and ev­i­dence was still not com­plete, sug­gest­ing a rushed ef­fort to re­solve the case.

Brun­son led a small con­gre­ga­tion in the Izmir Res­ur­rec­tion Church. The U.S. Com­mis­sion on In­ter­na­tional Religious Free­dom, with top rep­re­sen­ta­tive Tony Perkins mon­i­tor­ing the trial, had listed him as a “pris­oner of con­science.”

While sup­port­ers in the United States cel­e­brated Brun­son’s re­lease, his case over­shad­owed the predica­ment of a Turk­ish-Amer­i­can sci­en­tist from NASA and sev­eral Turk­ish work­ers for the U.S. diplo­matic mis­sion who were ar­rested in Turkey.

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