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Turkey convicts, but frees US pastor, ending heated Ankara-Washington row

AFP | In this file photo taken on July 25, 2018, US pastor Andrew Brunson is escorted by Turkish plainclothes police officers to his house on in Izmir, Turkey.

A Turkish court on Friday convicted a US pastor of terror charges and sentenced him to prison, but ultimately set him free due to good behaviour and time already served. The ruling ends months of diplomatic wrangling between Ankara and Washington.

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It could seem fanciful to draw a link between the fate of an American pastor in Turkey, a crisis between two NATO allies and turmoil on global financial markets. But Andrew Brunson, a Protestant clergyman who lived in Turkey for a quarter of a century, has spent months at the centre of a bitter row pitting the two nations against each other, causing both the lira to crash and raising new questions over Ankara's strategic orientation.

In Friday’s ruling, the Izmir court convicted Brunson on terror-related charges and sentenced him to over three years in jail but allowed him to walk free and leave the country, citing “good behaviour” and the 21 months he has already served for the early release.

Brunson's world was turned upside down on October 7, 2016, when he and his wife Norine were arrested in a government crackdown following a failed coup bid in July that year aimed at toppling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Norine was released two weeks later but  her husband was kept in jail and then charged with assisting two organisations regarded by Turkey as terror groups: the group of Fethullah Gulen blamed for the putsch and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

Brunson, who marked his 50th birthday behind bars on January 3, had faced up to 35 years in jail.

His arrest received relatively little media coverage at the time and efforts by US officials to release him were given initially only a very low profile in public.

But his continued detention turned into one of the biggest bones of contention in the increasingly troubled relationship between Turkey and the United States.

The tensions reached a peak in August when US President Donald Trump announced trade sanctions against Ankara, sending the lira into a tailspin and raising fears of a full-blown economic crisis.

Upon learning of Friday’s court ruling, Trump triumphantly tweeted: “Pastor Brunson just released. Will be home soon.”

‘Leaving Turkey tonight’

Jasper Mortimer, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Turkey, said the pastor is widely believed to be boarding a flight out of Turkey to the US already on Friday night.

In terms of diplomacy; Mortimer said that Brunson’s release marks a major coup for Trump. “Trump has taken a personal interest in Brunson’s case; he’s often referred to him as ‘a good innocent man’ and ‘a wonderful father’.”

He added that Trump was infuriated when Turkey in July decided to continue to prosecute the pastor, resulting in the US doubling tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminium, and threatened to impose more.

“It was clear that further sanctions would incur if Turkey didn’t release Brunson, so Turkey is now spared of that," Mortimer said, adding that the resolution of the Brunson case also paves the way for better relations between the two NATO allies on issues such as the Syrian Kurds and a penalty that the US treasury has been preparing to impose on a Turkish bank that broke US sanctions against Iran.

'I love Turkey'

Brunson's Evangelical Presbyterian Church describes him as a "teaching elder" who moved to Turkey in 1993 as part of a missionary programme.

According to his own testimony, Brunson arrived in the Aegean city of Izmir in 2000 and opened his Dirilis (Resurrection) Church a decade later. A small, easily missed building, it counted just a few dozen congregants.

"I was not engaged in any secret activity. The state always watched us," he said in court.

"I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years."

Brunson was sent from jail to house arrest in late July but the move added to rather than defused tensions, with US officials bitterly disappointed he had not been allowed to return home.

American reports alleged that Turkey had reneged on an agreement, although this has been vehemently denied by Ankara.

Speaking in perfect Turkish, Brunson told the court he "forgives" those who provided testimony accusing him of links with the PKK and Gulen's group.

"I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey," he said in his final defence.

'Total disgrace'

Turkish officials insist that the case has been misportrayed in Western media and that Brunson had serious charges to answer.

"Shame on you, shame on you. You are exchanging your strategic partner in NATO for a pastor," Erdogan said.

But the US has insisted Brunson is an innocent man who is being unfairly held on the most absurd charges based on dubious testimony by "secret" witnesses whose identity was never revealed.

Trump has repeatedly tweeted his support for Brunson, describing him as a "Christian leader in the United States" and a "respected US pastor" whose continued holding by Turkey was a "total disgrace".

The row has become symbolic of a malaise between the two nations that extends far further than this case.

Turkey is furious that the US has failed to hand over Gulen to face trial and also over the conviction and imprisonment of Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla for breaking US sanctions against Iran.

In another less publicised issue, the US is also watching the case of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in February on terror charges, a term reduced to five years last month.

Turkish officials have rejected claims that Ankara engaged in "hostage diplomacy" by jailing Brunson in the hope of winning US concessions elsewhere.

Yet in September 2017, Erdogan suggested that Turkey could free Brunson if Washington handed over Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

"They say 'give us the pastor'. You have a preacher (Gulen) there. Give him to us, and we will try (Brunson) and give him back," Erdogan said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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