U.S. pas­tor ex­its Turkey af­ter 2 years’ de­ten­tion

Brun­son’s ar­rest on ter­ror­ism-re­lated charges strained bi­lat­eral ties

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY ERIN CUN­NING­HAM

aliaga, turkey — Amer­i­can pas­tor Andrew Brun­son flew out of Turkey late Fri­day af­ter a Turk­ish court con­victed him of aid­ing ter­ror­ism but sen­tenced him only to time served. His re­lease came one day af­ter U.S. of­fi­cials said a deal had been reached with Turkey’s gov­ern­ment to se­cure his free­dom.

White House spokesman Judd Deere con­firmed Brun­son’s de­par­ture, say­ing he was due to ar­rive at Joint Base An­drews out­side Washington at noon Satur­day af­ter a stop in Ger­many, ac­cord­ing to a pool re­port.

The case of the evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian preacher caught up in Turkey’s post-coup-at­tempt se­cu­rity sweep had gar­nered at­ten­tion at the high­est lev­els of the U.S. gov­ern­ment and be­come a sore point in the two coun­tries’ re­la­tion­ship.

Brun­son, 50, had been de­tained for two years on es­pi­onage and ter­ror­ism-re­lated charges that the pas­tor and U.S. of­fi­cials said were false.

“We’re very hon­ored to have him back with us. He suf­fered greatly,” Pres­i­dent Trump told re­porters, say­ing Brun­son would visit the White House per­haps as soon as Satur­day. “There was no deal at all,” Trump added. “No deal.”

In Turkey, Brun­son’s at­tor­ney, Is­mail Cem Halavurt, ac­knowl­edged that his client was re­turn­ing to the United States but added, “I hope he is able to come back.”

“He is some­one who ab­so­lutely loves Turkey,” he said.

Af­ter an­nounc­ing Brun­son’s con­vic­tion, the judge pre­sid­ing

over his trial in a court in western Turkey re­duced his three-year-plus sen­tence to time served on grounds of good be­hav­ior. The pas­tor, who led a small evan­gel­i­cal con­gre­ga­tion in the city of Izmir, had been moved to house ar­rest in July for health rea­sons, but that ar­range­ment was also ended so he could leave the coun­try.

U.S. of­fi­cials said Thurs­day that the two gov­ern­ments had ne­go­ti­ated an agree­ment that would see Brun­son re­leased in ex­change for the lift­ing of U.S. sanc­tions on two se­nior Turk­ish cab­i­net min­is­ters — penal­ties im­posed to gain lever­age in the Brun­son case. The deal was reached on the side­lines of the U.N. Gen­eral As­sem­bly last month, the of­fi­cials said.

In re­cent months, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion had made the pas­tor’s re­lease a pri­or­ity. Vice Pres­i­dent Pence took a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est, help­ing mo­bi­lize Trump’s evan­gel­i­cal po­lit­i­cal base in sup­port of the cause.

Brun­son’s re­lease also came as Turkey was in­ves­ti­gat­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of Ja­mal Khashoggi, a Saudi jour­nal­ist who Turk­ish in­ves­ti­ga­tors believe was killed af­ter he en­tered the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul last week. Turkey has briefed U.S. of­fi­cials on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and is seek­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s sup­port in press­ing Saudi Ara­bia to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion about Khashoggi’s fate. At the same time, Turkey is try­ing to avoid a to­tal rup­ture in re­la­tions with the Saudis, an­a­lysts said.

In a state­ment af­ter the Brun­son ver­dict Fri­day, the of­fice of Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan said it had been mon­i­tor­ing “with great re­gret” what it called U.S. ef­forts to pres­sure Turkey’s in­de­pen­dent ju­di­cial sys­tem.

“The Pres­i­dent has re­peat­edly stressed that Turkey would not bow to those threats,” the state­ment from com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor Fahret­tin Al­tun said. The rul­ing, Al­tun said, “reaf­firmed that Turkey is a demo­cratic coun­try with the rule of law.”

Brun­son’s trial had helped deepen a rift be­tween Turkey and the United States, which were al­ready at odds over the lat­ter’s sup­port for Kur­dish-led fight­ers battling the Is­lamic State group in Syria.

Prose­cu­tors ac­cused Brun­son of be­ing linked to Kur­dish sep­a­ratists in Turkey and their al­lies in Syria, as well as to Fethul­lah Gulen, the U.S.-based Mus­lim cleric who Turk­ish author­i­ties say or­ches­trated a coup at­tempt in July 2016 and whose ex­tra­di­tion Turkey has long sought. U.S. of­fi­cials have said Turkey has never pro­vided ev­i­dence of Gulen’s in­volve­ment that would stand up in court.

While the re­lease of Brun­son re­moves a ma­jor irritant in U.S.-Turk­ish re­la­tions, those un­der­ly­ing is­sues re­main, along with sev­eral oth­ers.

Turkey is mov­ing ahead over U.S. ob­jec­tions to pur­chase the so­phis­ti­cated Rus­sian S-400 air de­fense mis­sile sys­tem, and the United States has threat­ened to can­cel Turkey’s pur­chase of U.S. F-35 fighter jets.

Turkey also wants the re­lease of a Turk­ish banker con­victed in the United States af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of al­leged vi­o­la­tions of oil sanc­tions against Iran by a Turk­ish bank. Turkey buys al­most half its oil from Iran, and Washington has been pres­sur­ing Ankara to stop the pur­chases when Iran sanc­tions re­lated to the nu­clear deal are snapped back next month.

And in Au­gust, Trump dou­bled tar­iffs on im­ports of Turk­ish steel and alu­minum, which sent the Turk­ish lira to a record low against the U.S. dol­lar.

Still, Fri­day’s de­vel­op­ment should al­low Trump and Er­do­gan to “re­set” re­la­tions, one an­a­lyst said.

“The dif­fer­ences in bi­lat­eral ties re­main,” said Soner Ca­gap­tay, di­rec­tor of the Turk­ish Re­search Pro­gram at the Washington In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy. “But what mat­ters is that this takes the charge out of the re­la­tion­ship.”

It will calm anti-Turk­ish sen­ti­ment in Congress as well, he said.

“Brun­son’s in­dict­ment in the U.S. Congress was por­trayed as the case of a Chris­tian pas­tor be­ing per­se­cuted by Mus­lims,” he said. “And built a sen­ti­ment in Congress that there should be no fa­vors given to Turkey un­til the pas­tor is re­leased.”

Brun­son, who is from North Carolina, wept and em­braced his wife, Norine, as they waited for the judge’s rul­ing Fri­day.

He was first de­tained in Oc­to­ber 2016, swept up in the wave of ar­rests that fol­lowed the mil­i­tary coup at­tempt three months ear­lier and tar­geted tens of thou­sands of peo­ple, in­clud­ing artists, in­tel­lec­tu­als and or­di­nary Turks.

Prose­cu­tors for­mally ar­rested Brun­son two months later and is­sued an in­dict­ment in March of this year. The hear­ing Fri­day was Brun­son’s fourth in the trial held at the Aliaga court com­plex, 40 miles from his long­time home in Izmir.

Turk­ish prose­cu­tors had sought a 35-year sen­tence for Brun­son, whom they ac­cused of spy­ing and sup­port­ing ter­ror­ists un­der the cover of hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and in­ter­faith dia­logue. That re­quest was later re­duced to 10 years at the trial.

At the hear­ing Fri­day, a string of wit­nesses for the pros­e­cu­tion, in­clud­ing one who ap­peared via video con­fer­ence, gave scat­tered and at times con­tra­dic­tory tes­ti­mony.

One wit­ness, Levent Kalkan, said in­ves­ti­ga­tors mis­un­der­stood his orig­i­nal tes­ti­mony, which had im­pli­cated Brun­son in the har­bor­ing of coup at­tempt sus­pects and Kur­dish mil­i­tants in 2016.

The man Kalkan has said wit­nessed the pro­tec­tion of the fugi­tives ap­peared in court Fri­day to say he had seen no such thing.

“I never told Levent that,” said the wit­ness, Yil­maz Demir­can.

Brun­son, who sat alone in front of a panel of judges and the state pros­e­cu­tor, was al­lowed to speak af­ter each wit­ness’s tes­ti­mony.

“I never met any PKK fight­ers,” he told the judges in Turk­ish.

In his fi­nal state­ment to the court just be­fore the ver­dict was is­sued, Brun­son said: “I’m an in­no­cent man. I love Je­sus. I love this coun­try.” Carol Morello in Washington and Ka­reem Fahim in Is­tan­bul con­trib­uted to this re­port.

EMRE TAZEGUL/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Andrew Brun­son, far left, in Izmir, Turkey, af­ter he was sen­tenced to time served. He and U.S. of­fi­cials said the charges were false.

CHRIS MC­GRATH/GETTY IMAGES

A Turk­ish soldier stands guard out­side the Aliaga Prison Court in Izmir on Fri­day af­ter Amer­i­can pas­tor Andrew Brun­son ar­rived for a court hear­ing. Brun­son’s case had be­come a cause cele­bre in U.S. evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles, and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence had cham­pi­oned his cause.

BURAK KARA/GETTY IMAGES

A U.S con­sular of­fi­cial es­corts Norine Brun­son, wife of Andrew Brun­son, to her hus­band’s court hear­ing in Izmir.

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