A Turkish court convicted an American pastor at the center of a Turkish-American diplomatic dispute of terror charges Friday, but released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave Turkey.
The court near the western city of Izmir on Friday sentenced the Rev. Andrew Brunson to 3 years and 1 month in prison for the conviction, but since the evangelical pastor has already spent two years in detention he won't serve more time.
Brunson, 50, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained
Word of his release became public around the time President Donald Trump issued a one-sentence tweet
: "Working very hard on Pastor Brunson!"
Trump followed up with another message on Twitter minutes later: "My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon!"
Minutes later, Trump cheered Brunson's release:
"PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!"
Brunson faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, rejects the charges and strongly maintains his innocence. He is one of thousands caught up in a wide-scale government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.
Prosecutors accuse Brunson of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups, linking him to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt. The U.S. maintains he is being held unjustly and has repeatedly called for his release.
The trial comes as Turkey and the United States are embroiled in another major diplomatic incident regarding a Saudi writer — U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi — who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the diplomatic mission. Saudi officials reject the claims as "baseless."
The court on Friday called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at the previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan's accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.
Brunson again denied accusations that his church aided Kurdish militants, saying he had handed over a list of Syrian refugees the congregation had helped and adding that Turkish authorities would have identified any terrorists.
"We helped everyone, Kurds, Arabs, without showing any discrimination," he said.
On Thursday, a person involved in efforts to free Brunson told The Associated Press in Washington that the pastor could be released at the hearing. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because officials had not yet reached a final agreement on the release and it could still fall through.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the U.S. is hopeful he will soon go free but said she was unaware of any agreement on his release.
The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, was imprisoned for nearly two years — detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year — before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
The court's decision failed to improve tensions between the two NATO allies. Washington slapped sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled tariff on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. Those moves in August, coupled with concerns over the government's economic management, helped trigger a Turkish currency crisis.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has resisted U.S. demands for Brunson's release, insisting that the courts are independent. But he had previously suggested a possible swap of Brunson and the Pennsylvania-resident Fethullah Gulen — the cleric accused of being behind the coup.
Brunson led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, with top representative Tony Perkins monitoring the trial, has listed him as a "prisoner of conscience."
The U.S. chargé d'affaires to Turkey, Jeffrey M. Hovenier, was also in the courtroom.
William Devlin, an evangelical pastor from New York spoke to reporters outside the prison, saying hundreds of thousands of Christians are praying for Brunson's release.
Brunson's lawyer took the case to Turkey's highest court last week seeking his release from house arrest.
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