Turkish Court Rules to Release U.S. Pastor at Center of Ankara-Washington Rift After Two Years

The detention of Andrew Brunson led President Trump to sanction officials and raise tariffs ■ Brunson reportedly boarded a flight back to the U.S.

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers arrives at his house in Izmir, July 25, 2018.
AFP

A Turkish court ruled on Friday to release U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest, sentencing him to three years in jail but saying he will not spend any more time in custody because of time already served. He has been detained since October 2016.

The court's decision to lift judicial controls meant that evangelical pastor Brunson, at the heart of a diplomatic spat between the two countries, could leave Turkey and return to the United States. 

Witnesses said Brunson wept as the decision was announced. Before the judge's ruling, the pastor told the court: "I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey." 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday he was hopeful Turkey would release evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson this month. Relations between the two NATO allies have spiraled into a full-blown crisis over the trial of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, who was held for 21 months in a Turkish prison until his transfer to house arrest –  a move Washington dismissed as insufficient. 

>> Erdogan and Trump are in a chess match, but neither has the temperament to play | Analysis

Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of helping the group that Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup against President Tayyip Erdogan, as well as supporting outlawed PKK Kurdish militants.

Brunson was pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, serving a small Protestant congregation in Turkey's third-largest city, south of the Aegean town of Aliaga where he is now on trial. He lived in Turkey for more than 20 years.

Brunson appeared in the courtroom in the western coastal town of Aliaga wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie. His wife Norine looked on from the visitors' seating area as he listened to testimony from defense and prosecution witnesses. 

>> With Erdogan and Trump everything is personal, even a fall in the Turkish lira | Analysis

"I do not understand how this is related to me," Brunson said after the judge questioned one of a series of witnesses. He said the judge was asking the witness about incidents Brunson was not involved in. 

Brunson could have been jailed for up to 35 years. He denied the charges against him. 

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday said his administration was "working very hard" in the case of Andrew Brunson. "Working very hard on Pastor Brunson!" Trump wrote in a post on Twitter. 

Turkey denied Trump's assertion that U.S. pressure had contributed to Brunson's release.

Trump, infuriated by Brunson's detention, authorized a doubling of duties on aluminum and steel imported from Turkey in August. The U.S. Senate passed a bill in June including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson's imprisonment and Turkey's purchase of Russia's S-400 air defense system. 

Brunson's mother told Reuters she and his father were elated at the news. "We are overjoyed that God has answered the prayers of so many people around the world," she said. 

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case. The release could boost Trump's ability to encourage such voters to support Republicans in large numbers in Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether the party keeps control of Congress. 

Turkey retaliated by increasing tariffs on U.S. cars, alcohol and tobacco imports.

The Turkish lira has lost nearly 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year on concerns over Erdogan’s grip on monetary policy and the diplomatic dispute between Ankara and Washington.

"The Brunson case is not even closely related to Turkey's economy. The current economic challenges have been exaggerated more than necessary and Turkey will overcome these challenges with its own resources," Erdogan said.

Erdogan has previously linked Brunson's fate to that of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkey accuses of masterminding the failed coup. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup, in which at least 250 people were killed.