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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Turkish court frees US pastor Andrew Brunson

US citizen's release after terror trial will ease tensions between Washington and Ankara

Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, has spent almost two years imprisoned on terror-related charges in Turkey. AP
Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, has spent almost two years imprisoned on terror-related charges in Turkey. AP

A Turkish court ruled on Friday to release US pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest, sentencing him instead to three years in jail but saying he would not spend any more time in custody because of time already served.

The court's decision to seek no further action against him means that Mr Brunson, whose detention is at the heart of a diplomatic spat between the two countries, could leave Turkey and return to the United States within a short period of time.

In final arguments, the prosecutor asked for Mr Brunson to be sentenced to up to 10 years in jail on charges of membership of a terror group, but also that the court lift the house arrest and travel ban imposed on the pastor, who was first detained in October 2016.

US pastor Andrew Brunson, centre, arrives at the court in Aliaga district on October 12, 2018. AFP
US pastor Andrew Brunson, centre, arrives at the court in Aliaga district on October 12, 2018. AFP

The case against Mr Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has led to US tariffs and sanctions against Turkey and drawn condemnation from President Donald Trump.

The pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He denies the accusation and Washington has demanded his immediate release.

US media reported ahead of Mr Brunson's court appearance that the White House expected him to be released following secret talks between Washington and Ankara. Those expectations were raised after witnesses told the court earlier on Friday that previous testimonies attributed to them were inaccurate.

Norine Brunson, centre, the wife of Andrew Brunson, outside the courthouse at Aliaga in Izmir, Turkey. AFP Photo
Norine Brunson, centre, the wife of Andrew Brunson, outside the courthouse at Aliaga in Izmir, Turkey. AFP Photo

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

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

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Although the US State Department said it was not aware of any secret deal between Washington and Ankara to secure Mr Brunson's release, Mr Trump's administration said it was hopeful that the pastor could be freed at the hearing.

Mr Brunson's detention deepened a rift between the Nato allies, who are also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey's plan to buy missile defences from Russia. The row has also exacerbated a slide in the Turkish lira, which has lost 40 per cent against the dollar this year. The currency strengthened to 5.88 against the US dollar as the hearing progressed on Friday.

Reporters surround a car believed to be carrying US pastor Andrew Brunson as it arrives at the courthouse for his trial in Izmir. AP Photo
Reporters surround a car believed to be carrying US pastor Andrew Brunson as it arrives at the courthouse for his trial in Izmir. AP Photo

Jailed or held under house arrest since October 2016, Mr Brunson faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted. Last month the main prosecutor in his trial was replaced, a move his lawyer cautiously welcomed, saying it might be a sign of changing political will.

The case has also highlighted concerns over the independence of the Turkish judiciary under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has suggested that Mr Brunson could be released in return for Mr Gulen, who is based in the United States.

Despite pressure from the Trump administration, Mr Erdogan has insisted that he has no sway over the judiciary and the courts will decide Mr Brunson's fate.