United States pastor freed by Turkish court after diplomatic row

Charlene Craig
October 13, 2018

"This is the day our family has been praying for - I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States", Brunson said.

Brunson was officially sentenced to three years and one month in prison for the conviction; but, because he had already served two years in detention, he wasn't required to spend any more time behind bars. We're grateful to the President, Members of Congress, and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson. "I love Jesus. I love Turkey", Brunson told the court Friday, speaking in Turkish. Making a statement in flawless Turkish, the Evangelical Presbyterian minister, who moved to Turkey in 1993, said, "I'm an innocent man - I love Jesus, and I love this country".

The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has become the flashpoint in a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington, triggering USA tariffs and sanctions against Turkey and condemnation from President Donald Trump.

Andrew Brunson, a pastor who had worked in Turkey for 20 years, was arrested in October 2016 as part of a crackdown against political opponents of the country's president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after a failed coup attempt.

Altun insisted that Turkish courts were independent from government and impartial: "We would like to remind him once again that Turkey is a democratic country with the rule of law, and that Turkish courts are independent".

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Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper whose columns are closely watched for indications of the Erdogan administration's thinking, wrote this week he expected the pastor to walk free and "solve" the Turkey-US crisis. Brunson flew out from Izmir's worldwide airport on late Saturday evening, hours after a local court ordered his release.

Turkey and the USA also disagree over their military interventions in the Syria war, Ankara's plan to buy missile defense systems from Russian Federation and the U.S. conviction of a Turkish state bank executive on sanctions-busting charges in January. His prolonged imprisonment led the U.S.to impose sanctions on two Turkish ministers and threaten further penalties were he not released. The U.S. military planned to fly him home on a military aircraft, officials told Reuters.

"This administration has been actively engaged in seeking Pastor Brunson's release for months, along with NASA scientist Serkan Golge and the employees of the USA mission in Turkey", a senior administration official said. Turkey wanted to exchange Brunson for the Muslim cleric it accused of orchestrating the failed coup, Fetullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.

Brunson was arrested and detained for 18 months before finally being charged by the Turkish government with a connection to the coup attempt.

The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church.

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In July, Brunson had been moved from a Turkish prison to house arrest due to health issues.

The resumption of the trial 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.

Brunson's lawyer took the case to Turkey's highest court last week seeking his release from house arrest.

Erdoğan had previously attempted to craft a deal with the U.S.to trade Brunson for Fethullah Gülen, the US -based Turkish cleric that he blames for the coup attempt. If the pastor remains under Turkish arrest, ties between Ankara and Washington will worsen and Erdogan faces the prospect of more sanctions, not just for Brunson but for Turkey's recent purchase of Russian S400 defense missiles.

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