Turkish Court Convicts US Pastor Of Terror Yet Frees Him
IZMIR, Turkey (AP) — A Turkish court on Friday convicted an American pastor of terror links but released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave the country, a move that’s likely to ease tensions between Turkey and the United States.
The court near the western city of Izmir sentenced North Carolina native Andrew Brunson to three years, one month and 15 days in prison for allegedly helping terror groups. But since the 50-year-old evangelical pastor had already spent nearly two years in detention, Turkish law allowed him to remain free with time served.
An earlier charge of espionage against him was dropped.
Brunson, a native of North Carolina whose detention had sparked a diplomatic dispute between the two NATO allies, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained his innocence.
The 50-year-old had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges. With tears in his eyes, he hugged his wife Norine Lyn as he awaited the decision Friday.
After the verdict, President Donald J. Trump tweeted he was praying for Brunson, saying he “WILL BE HOME SOON!”
Lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson was expected to leave Turkey for the U.S., but it was not clear when. His lawyer said the electronic ankle bracelet monitoring his house arrest was removed. Brunson went back to his home in Izmir after the court proceeding.
Washington had repeatedly called for Brunson’s release and in August had slapped sanctions on Turkey.
But a top Turkish official criticized Trump’s tweets claiming that he was “working hard” to get the pastor’s release. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s communications director, Fahrettin Altun, repeated the president’s stance that Turkey would not bow to threats of sanctions and said the court’s ruling Friday proved the judiciary’s independence.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thousands caught up in a widespread Turkish government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the government in July 2016.
He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups and of alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants and to a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey claims orchestrated the coup attempt. Gulen denies the claims.
“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” Brunson told the court Friday, speaking in Turkish.
Earlier, the court called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at a previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan’s accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.
The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. He was imprisoned for nearly two years — detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year — before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
Tony Perkins, the commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said he welcomed the court’s decision Friday along with “the millions of Americans who have been praying for Pastor Brunson’s release.”
Members of the Christ Community Church in Montreat, North Carolina, were overjoyed at Brunson’s release.
Spokeswoman Debi Forester said the church’s Rev. Richard White has been with the Brunson family in Turkey for a day or two and the U.S. Consulate is handling Brunson’s travel arrangements to return to the United States.
She quotes White as saying the group is “all just shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ and doing the happy dance.” She says the church will have a welcome home party for Brunson sometime.
Washington had imposed sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports in August to push its demands for the pastor’s release.
Erdogan had resisted that U.S. demands, insisting that Turkish courts are independent. But he had previously undermined that stance, suggesting a possible swap of Brunson for Gulen.
Turkey has demanded Gulen’s extradition but so far U.S. officials say Turkey has not provided sufficient reason for U.S. officials to extradite the cleric.
Brunson’s trial came as another major diplomatic case is developing in Turkey involving Saudi writer and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.
Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic mission and Turkish newspapers have released pictures of alleged Saudi agents flown in to allegedly handle the killing.
Saudi officials reject the claim as “baseless.”