Turkish court says U.S. pastor Brunson can go free

ALIAGA, Turkey (Reuters) – A Turkish court ruled on Friday that the American evangelical Christian pastor at the center of a row between Ankara and Washington could go free, a move that could be the first step toward mending ties between the NATO allies.

Norine Brunson, wife of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, departs for her husband’s court hearing in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

The court sentenced Andrew Brunson to three years and 1-1/2 months in prison on terrorism charges, but said he would not serve any further jail time. The pastor, who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, was put in prison two years ago and has been under house arrest since July.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to secure Brunson’s release, tweeted: “PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!”

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said. Before the judge’s ruling he had told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey.”

After the ruling, Brunson’s lawyer told reporters he pastor was likely to leave Turkey.

The diplomatic stand-off over Brunson, who had been pastor of the Izmir Resurrection Church, had accelerated a selloff in Turkey’s lira, worsening a financial crisis.

Brunson had been accused of links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.

Witnesses told the court in the western town of Aliaga that testimonies against the pastor attributed to them were inaccurate.

After the judge questioned one witness, Brunson said the judge was asking about incidents Brunson had not been involved in. His wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ area.

‘GREAT CHRISTIAN’

Trump has scored points with evangelical Christians, a large part of his political base, by focusing on the Brunson case.

Soldiers walk in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The pastor’s release could boost Trump’s ability to spur such voters to vote in large numbers for Republicans in the Nov. 6 elections, which will determine whether they keep control of Congress.

The heavily conservative constituency voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. He has called Brunson a “great Christian”, and Vice President Mike Pence, the White House’s top emissary to evangelicals, has urged Americans to pray for Brunson.

U.S. broadcaster NBC said on Thursday that Washington had had done a secret deal with Ankara to secure Brunson’s release.

The lira stood at 5.910 to the dollar at 1336 GMT, little changed on the day after firming 3 percent on Thursday on expectations that Brunson would be released.

Relations between the two NATO allies are also under strain from disputes over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, Turkey’s plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, and the jailing of a Turkish bank executive for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

With Brunson’s release, attention may now turn to the fate of a Turkish-U.S. national and former NASA scientist in jail in Turkey on terrorism charges, as well as local employees of the U.S. consulate who have also been detained.

Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen, Daren Butler and Sarah Dadouch in Istnabul and Matt Spetalnick and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Dominic Evans

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