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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Turkey could release Pastor Andrew Brunson on Friday

A reported deal between Washington and Ankara over fate of the American citizen is said to include easing of economic pressure

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

The American pastor Andrew Brunson could be released in Turkey on Friday almost two years after his arrest, following secret talks between Washington and Ankara.

US officials are hopeful that when Mr Brunson appears in court his charges will be dropped and within days will be allowed to return home to North Carolina.

NBC, quoting two senior US officials, said that the White House expects Pastor Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the US "in the coming days”.

But the administration is being cautious about setting expectations, especially after its previous deal with Turkey to release Mr Brunson collapsed in August and included a release of Turkish prisoner in Israel. This time, according to NBC, the deal would ease economic pressure on Turkey.

Following the collapse of the August talks, the Trump administration and Congress took fresh measures against Turkey. Those included sanctions on the Interior and Justice ministers, Suleyman Soylu and Abdulhamit Gul, under the Magnitsky Act, and the doubling of US tariffs on Turkish aluminium and steel imports.

News about the imminent release is said to have followed secret talks in New York last month on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Turkish officials. The Wall Street Journal reported then that Turkey would release the pastor if the US “stops putting economic pressure” on the country, whose economic growth and currency dipped to new lows last month.

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The US congress has also threatened to restrict billions of dollars in international financial loans to Turkey and block F-35 jet deliveries if it continues to hold Mr Brunson, and if it acquired the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The State Department is unaware of a deal, according to Reuters, but Mr Pompeo was hopeful about its chances on Wednesday. “I’m very hopeful that before too long, Pastor Brunson will - he and his wife - will be able to return to the United States… and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see a good outcome before too long,” he said.

Aaron Stein, a scholar who focuses on Turkey at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, told The National that “the ball remains in Turkey’s court. The US has made clear that there is a deal to be made. They have also signalled that things will get worse if Turkey doesn’t follow through.”

If Mr Brunson is not released tomorrow and is instead convicted on charges of espionage - carrying a sentence of up to 35 years - or if the hearing is rescheduled, economic pressure could be ramped up against Ankara. “The US has signalled that it will increase sanctions on Turkey, making an already weak Turkish economy even weaker,” said Mr Stein.

Asked about the deal itself, the expert said that the previous one “as originally constructed, was robust and required reciprocal Turkish releases of the other American citizens.”

The release of Mr Brunson could help Mr Trump shore up evangelical support four weeks ahead of the US midterm elections.