Andrew Brunson: Trump meets US pastor freed by Turkey

Pa, 10/14/2018 - 04:00 -- mhrbanynus

Published by BBC

Andrew Brunson appeared in the Oval Office with President Trump following a case that has strained relations between the two countries.

Mr Brunson thanked the president and his administration for securing his release - and prayed for him.

President Trump thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for helping with his release.

He said the US had been working "long and hard" to secure Mr Brunson's release, and told Mr Brunson he had "galvanised this country" with his strength and faith.

Mr Brunson was arrested over alleged links to political groups, including the banned Gulenist movement, after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

On Friday, a Turkish court sentenced Mr Brunson to three years in jail - but freed him because of the time he had already spent in detention.

Additional espionage charges against him were also dropped by the court.

Mr Brunson and his wife at the airport in IzmirImage copyrightREUTERS
Image captionMr Brunson, seen here with his wife, was freed on Friday

What did President Trump say?

Mr Trump called the release a "tremendous step" towards a "great relationship" with Turkey.

He insisted there had been no deal made with Turkey, but said the US would reconsider its "very tough" sanctions on the country.

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Mr Trump said the US felt "very differently about Turkey" in light of the pastor's release.

When asked by a reporter if the release had any relation to the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the president said the timing was "strict coincidence".

What did Brunson say?

The pastor kneeled down to pray for Mr Trump in the Oval Office, asking that the president be made "a great blessing to this country".

He then told reporters that he and his wife now wished to spend time with their children.

In a statement earlier, Mr Brunson said his whole family "thanks the president, the administration and Congress for their unwavering support".

After his release on Friday he flew from Izmir in western Turkey to a US base in Germany, and then on to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Members of Pastor Brunson's church celebrate in front of his house after he was releasedImage copyrightEPA
Image captionMembers of Mr Brunson's church celebrated in front of his house after he was released

What was he accused of?

Mr Brunson lived in Turkey with his wife and three children for more than 20 years, most of it working for the small Izmir Resurrection Church, which had a congregation of about two dozen people.

He was arrested in October 2016. The authorities accused him of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Gulenist movement, which Turkey blames for the 2016 failed coup.

In July 2018 he was released from prison for health reasons and moved to house arrest until his trial. A few weeks later, the US imposed sanctions on Turkey's justice and interior ministers over his continued detention.

Mr Brunson and US officials insisted he was innocent of all charges.

What happened in court?

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, Mr Brunson, who was one of 20 Americans charged after the coup attempt two years ago, told the court he was "an innocent man".

The pastor was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them, and sentenced to three years in prison. The court took into account the time he had already spent in detention, lifting his house arrest and overseas travel ban.

When the verdict was read out, he wept and hugged his wife Norine.

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'Pressure was too much'

By Mark Lowen, BBC Turkey Correspondent

President Erdogan has always insisted that he could not meddle with Turkey's judicial independence and that only the courts would decide Pastor Brunson's fate. But the World Economic Forum places Turkey 103rd of 137 countries in the independent judiciary rankings and Turkey-watchers knew it would always come down to a political decision.

In the end, pressure from Washington on Ankara was too much. Sanctions, trade tariffs and the threat of more had led US-Turkey relations to nosedive - and with them, the Turkish lira. Facing spiralling inflation, a 40% drop in the value of the currency and the start of an economic crisis, Turkey had to act to normalise relations with the US. Mr Brunson was the key.

Andrew Brunson had the American government behind him. Deniz Yucel, the former correspondent of Die Welt, who was imprisoned and then finally freed in Turkey, had the German government supporting him. Tens of thousands of others here who claim wrongful imprisonment don't have the backing of a powerful state to resist what they say is Turkey's politicised judiciary.

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Why is it significant?

Pastor Brunson's detention has soured relations between Washington and Ankara, who are allies in Nato, with both sides imposing sanctions on the other.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for the attempted coup but Mr Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania, denies any involvement.

Turkey wants the US to agree to his extradition. US support for Kurdish forces fighting the Syrian civil war has also angered Mr Erdogan, who views them as an extension of the PKK.

The PKK - a Turkish-Kurdish rebel group fighting for autonomy since the 1980s - is considered a terrorist group by Turkey and the US.

But in recent weeks, Mr Erdogan said he hoped to rebuild relations with Washington with the "spirit of strategic partnership".

More than 50,000 people were arrested in Turkey in the president's huge post-coup crackdown.