Turkey frees detained US pastor in move likely to please Trump

The court in Izmir convicted Brunson, 50, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, and sentenced him to three years, 1 month, and 15 days in jail, but lifted all judicial controls and released him after accounting for penalty reductions and time served.

Oct 12, 2018 02:10 IST India Infoline News Service

Pastor Andrew Brunson in custody in Turkey
A Turkish court set free US Pastor Andrew Brunson after holding him in prison for almost two years, removing a key source of tension between Turkey and the United States.

The court in Izmir convicted Brunson, 50, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, and sentenced him to three years, 1 month, and 15 days in jail, but lifted all judicial controls and released him after accounting for penalty reductions and time served.

Brunson had been accused of collaborating with terrorist groups and participating in a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. His prolonged imprisonment led the US to impose sanctions on two Turkish ministers and threaten further penalties were he not released.

The lira, however, reversed after the decision, trading 0.5% lower at 5.9511 per dollar as of 4:40 PM in Istanbul.

Brunson had lived in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir for more than 20 years before being arrested on espionage charges in 2016 as part of a crackdown following the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was transferred to house arrest in July because of poor health, but US officials had expected him to be freed at that time.

Brunson’s continued detention -- and Erdogan’s refusal to release him despite intense pressure from the White House – was a significant factor in a precipitous decline in US-Turkey relations in recent months. Furious over Turkey’s refusal to let him go, President Donald Trump in August doubled metal tariffs on Turkey and slapped sanctions on two senior Turkish officials involved in Brunson’s detention.

“I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar!” Trump wrote on Twitter on August 10. “Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

Turkish officials had sought meetings with the US to negotiate a resolution to the Brunson case and other issues, but National Security Adviser John Bolton, in August, declared no such talks would proceed until Brunson was let go. In the meantime, Turkey’s lira continued its fall, losing about 25% of its value in August alone.

Officials have hoped Brunson’s release could serve as a catalyst for improving ties between Turkey and the US. Turkey has played a role in the fight against Islamic State in neighboring Syria and has the second-biggest military in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At the same time, Erdogan has made American leaders increasingly nervous because of his drift toward authoritarianism and pursuit of better ties with Russia.

The tensions over Brunson’s arrest had become a source of frustration and personal embarrassment for Trump, who believed Erdogan backed out of a deal in July to release him. Trump and Erdogan were seen at a July NATO summit in Brussels giving each other a fist bump, reportedly after working out a deal to free the pastor.

The issue had also been repeatedly highlighted by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who serve as important links between Trump and his evangelical Christian base. In a tweet in August, Pence said US sanctions “will continue until President Erdogan and the Turkish government release Pastor Brunson and return this innocent man of faith to the US”.

Brunson denied the charges against him, which included conspiring to help topple Erdogan and fanning ethnic tension. He was accused of contacting people linked to Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish cleric living in exile in the US whom Erdogan has blamed for the coup. Turkey has unsuccessfully pressed the US to extradite Gulen, who denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Three other people detained in Turkey have further fuelled strain between the US and Turkey. They include NASA scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the US mission to Turkey. The US says they’re innocent and being held by Turkey to extract concessions on other points of tension in the US-relationship.

Source: Bloomberg 

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