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Brunson Released from Prison, Ending US-Turkey Feud

By Dorian Jones October 12, 2018

A Turkish court on Friday freed American Pastor Andrew Brunson, ending a bitter diplomatic dispute between Washington and Ankara. Brunson was facing 35 years in jail if he had been convicted on terrorism and espionage charges, allegations Washington called baseless.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters that Brunson had "suffered greatly" but was now in "good shape." On Twitter, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration would continue to work to bring other "wrongfully imprisoned" Americans home.

The U.S. military was flying Brunson to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for a medical evaluation before he continued on to the United States. Trump said Brunson was likely to fly to Washington on Saturday and would visit the White House soon.

During the fourth day of hearings Friday in Brunson's case, three prosecution witnesses recanted earlier testimony. One said he didn't know who Brunson was, while others claimed the court had misunderstood their previous statements.

The Turkish court found Brunson guilty but sentenced him to only three years and one month in jail. The pastor had already served two years in pre-trial detention, so he was freed for time served.

"This is the day all my family has been waiting for," witnesses quoted Brunson as saying upon hearing the court sentence.

"We're grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson," his lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said in a statement.

The pastor's case became the focal point of an unprecedented crisis in Turkish-U.S. relations. Trump, partly in retaliation for Brunson's prosecution, slapped Turkey with trade tariffs in August. The action made the Turkish currency collapse.

Brunson, 50, had lived in Turkey since the 1990s, running an evangelical church. He belongs to the same church as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and had become a focal point of concern for Trump's evangelical voting base. Observers said the pastor's release just before November's midterm elections was a big win for Trump.

U.S. media reported before Brunson's release about a secret deal between Ankara and Washington, a claim rejected by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Improved ties

Analysts suggested the door was now open to resolving the many issues poisoning ties between the two NATO partners.

"The hope is Brunson's release, from then on, that there will be a domino effect of positive progress in Turkish-U.S. relations," said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.

"The release of Brunson is the essence for Turkish-U.S. relations to get back on track," said former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen.

But analyst Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress, a U.S. research group, suggested in a VOA interview that there's danger to the U.S.-Turkey dynamic that resulted in Brunson's release.

"The U.S. sees that the stick approach worked, that a pressure campaign worked. ... They say pressure got their guy out of prison, and they'll be tempted to go back to that approach. That's dangerous," he said, "because eventually Erdogan will feel too much pressure and will lash out or, you know, refuse to back down and we'll have ... an even deeper crisis."



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