Turkey court frees pastor after crisis with US

Published on 12.10.2018 at 18h54 by AFP

A Turkish court on Friday freed an American pastor held for the last two years, in a case that sparked a crisis in Turkey’s ties with the United States and trouble for its economy.

The court in the western town of Aliaga convicted Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail, an AFP correspondent said.

However, he was freed taking into account time served and his good conduct during the trial, with the court lifting his house arrest and overseas travel ban, the correspondent said.

“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 in a statement released by the American Center for Law and Justice, a group that works on Christian legal cases and which represented Brunson.

US President Donald Trump, who has publicly pressed for Brunson’s released, tweeted that he “will be home soon”.

The pastor was swiftly driven to his home in the nearby city of Izmir once the hearing was concluded. But it was unclear when he would head to an airport for an eventual flight back to the United States.

Brunson, who was first detained in October 2016 faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of aiding terror groups and espionage. Prosecutors then demanded a sentence of up to 10 years.

He was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them. Brunson and US officials insisted he is innocent of all charges.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” he said in his final defence.

When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine.

– ‘Navigate a minefield’ –

Brunson’s detention since 2016 caused not just one of the worst diplomatic rows of recent times between NATO allies Turkey and the US, but also led to a crash in the Turkish lira which exposed the country’s economic fragility.

Turkish judicial authorities repeatedly denied requests for the release of Brunson, who was moved from prison to house arrest in Izmir in July.

But analysts warned that Brunson’s release alone would not resolve the troubles between Turkey and the United States.

“The clamp has now been removed, which opens the way for bilateral negotiations to address other sources of disagreement, but Washington and Ankara still have to navigate through a minefield,” Anthony Skinner, director of Middle East and North Africa at the Verisk Maplecroft consultancy, told AFP.

He pointed to the order by Turkey of Russian S-400 missile defence systems which has riled its Western allies and Ankara’s determination to do business with Iran in defiance of US sanctions.

The new hearing also came as Turkey braces for potential fines from US authorities over Iran sanctions busting by Turkish lender Halkbank, which has already seen the jailing of its deputy director general in the United States.

The US is also watching the case of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turkish national, who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in February on terror charges, a term reduced to a five years last month.

And Turkey is still holding two Turkish employees of US diplomatic missions in jail. One of the suspects, former Adana consulate staffer Hamza Ulucay, was Friday denied release in a separate court hearing.

– Secret deal? –

The release of Brunson 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 last week.

Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Trump have pressed Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi.

If the Brunson issue is resolved to Washington’s satisfaction, it could help the two sides coordinate their Saudi policy more closely.

Erdogan, who has in the past taken aim at Brunson, appeared to distance himself from the case in his latest comments earlier this week, saying he could not interfere in judicial affairs.

US broadcaster NBC said Turkey and the United States had reached a secret deal for Brunson to be released on Friday and some charges against him dropped, in exchange for the US easing “economic pressure” that included sanctions which have hammered the lira.

“The key question.. is what Turkey got in return for freeing Brunson. Most probably something, but definitely not everything Turkey wants. The US hand is stronger,” said Skinner.

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