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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

US pastor's lawyer lodges appeal at top Turkey court

Pastor Andrew Brunson has been under house arrest at his home in Izmir since July

Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina faces trial on Friday. AP
Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina faces trial on Friday. AP

A lawyer for the US pastor whose two-year detention in Turkey led to a bitter row with Washington said on Wednesday he had appealed to the constitutional court for the American's release.

Pastor Andrew Brunson has been under house arrest at his home in the western city of Izmir since July and was previously held in jail after being detained in October 2016 on terror-related charges.

His lawyer, Cem Halavurt, said that he had applied to the court on Tuesday afternoon, although he previously said he would apply on Wednesday morning.

The next hearing in Mr Brunson's case is on October 12 and there are growing expectations that he will be permitted to return to the United States.

Mr Halavurt said the constitutional court "procedure can take a few months" after making the application via a court in Istanbul.

Mr Brunson, who ran a small evangelical Protestant church in Izmir and lived in Turkey for since 1993, is at the centre of tensions between Ankara and Washington.

He faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted on charges of carrying out activities on behalf of two groups deemed by Turkey to be terror organisations – one led by US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen who Ankara says was behind the failed 2016 coup and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Mr Brunson and US officials insist he is innocent of all charges.

Relations were further strained after he was put under house arrest and Washington's decision to impose sanctions on two Turkish ministers, and double steel and aluminium tariffs in August, sparking a dramatic fall in the value of the Turkish lira.

But there have been signs that tensions could ease after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was hopeful Turkey would release the pastor while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday said he hoped Ankara could rebuild relations with its Nato ally.

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On Tuesday, a Turkish court upheld life sentences for prominent journalist Ahmet Altan and five others, the state-run Anadolu news agency said, after they were sentenced in February on charges of aiding plotters of a failed military coup in 2016.

Ahmet Altan, his brother Mehmet Altan and four other journalists were previously sentenced to life in jail for alleged links to the network of Mr Gulen.

Mehmet Altan was released from prison in June, but his sentence was also upheld on Tuesday, after a penal court rejected the constitutional court's request for his release.

The Altans' trial has underscored concerns about human rights and press freedom in Turkey under a post-coup crackdown, as well as worries over the independence of the judiciary under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Since the abortive putsch, more than 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs, while more than 120 journalists have been detained and about 180 media outlets shut down.

Rights groups and Turkey's Western allies have voiced concern that the government has used the putsch as a pretext to quash dissent, but the government has said the measures were necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

Ahmet Altan was charged over comments he made the day before the coup attempt, when he told a television show: "Whatever the developments were that led to military coups in Turkey, by making the same decisions, Erdogan is paving the same path".

On the same programme, Mehmet Altan referred to "another structure" within the government that was closely watching developments to "take its hand out of the bag".

Prosecutors said the brothers' comments were coded messages to call Mr Gulen's followers to action, and were charged with "violating the constitution", according to Anadolu.

All six journalists in the case are serving aggravated life sentences, which means they are not eligible for parole and cannot be included in future amnesty decisions.