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US pastor back on trial in Turkey as calls grow for release

© AFP/File | The detention of US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson has sparked a crisis between Turkey and its NATO ally the United States

ALIAGA (TURKEY) (AFP) - 

US pastor Andrew Brunson, whose two-year detention in Turkey sparked a crisis with the United States, returns to court on Friday with pressure growing for him to be released and allowed home.

Brunson's detention caused not just one of the worst diplomatic rows of recent times between the NATO allies, but also led to a crash in the Turkish lira, which exposed Turkey's economic fragility.

While the Turkish judicial authorities have repeatedly denied requests for Brunson to be released, observers see growing indications that he may, finally, be allowed to go free on Friday.

But if the court forces him to stay in detention, the backlash from Washington and also financial markets could prove bruising for Turkey.

"Everyone who deals with Turkey in Washington has been impatiently waiting for the October 12 hearing," wrote Turkey's Hurriyet daily US correspondent Cansu Camlibel.

"Is a face-saving in the making for Turkey?"

The resumption of the trial comes at a sensitive time for the Turkish leadership, which is under global scrutiny over how it handles the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who disappeared at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul.

Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald Trump have pressed Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi.

- 'Anxious wait' -

Erdogan, who has in the past taken aim at Brunson, appeared to distance himself from the case in his latest comments, saying he could not interfere in judicial affairs.

"Whatever decision the judiciary makes, I am obliged to obey it," he told Turkish reporters.

Brunson, who runs a small evangelical Protestant church in the western port city of Izmir, has since late July been held under house arrest but is banned from leaving the country.

The hearing is due to begin at 0700 GMT at the court in Aliaga, north of Izmir.

His case has become a cause celebre for conservative US Christians -- a core base of support for Trump. Vice President Mike Pence, like Brunson an evangelical Christian, has repeatedly raised the issue.

Trump, who slapped sanctions on Turkey that caused the lira to plunge, has lauded Brunson as a "great patriot" who was being held "hostage."

Brunson was first detained in October 2016 on allegations of assisting groups branded as terrorists as part of a crackdown by the Turkish government following a failed coup earlier that year.

If convicted, he faces 35 years in jail on charges of aiding terror groups and espionage. Brunson and US officials insist he is innocent of all charges.

"We demand that the judicial restrictions -- including house arrest and the overseas travel ban -- are lifted," his lawyer Cem Halavurt told AFP.

Brunson is in good health, but anxious over the wait, said Halavurt, who visited his client last week.

"We believe that since the beginning there has not been any strong criminal suspicion. There is no evidence in the case against him," the lawyer said.

Halavurt has lodged an appeal at Turkey's top Constitutional Court for the pastor's release but said this track could take months.

- Growing expectations -

Still, there have been signs of easing tensions after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was hopeful Turkey would release the pastor while Erdogan said he hoped Ankara could rebuild relations with its NATO ally.

Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist in Hurriyet whose columns are closely watched for indications of the Erdogan administration's thinking, also wrote the pastor could walk free.

"If Brunson is released as expected, the political part of the Trump crisis that started on August 10 (when the sanctions were imposed and currency crashed) will have been solved," he wrote on Monday.

"I believe that the court case over Brunson will be finalised and the priest will be released, taking into account the time he has stayed in prison."

Erdogan, who had a brief handshake with Trump on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly meetings in September, has said he hoped to rebuild relations with Washington with the "spirit of strategic partnership."

© 2018 AFP