Turkish court orders release of US pastor Andrew Brunson from house arrest
Brunson will be heading back to the US on a military plane, according to officials
A Turkish court ruled on Friday to release the US evangelical Christian pastor at the centre of a bitter diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington, a move that could be the first step towards mending ties between the Nato allies.
Andrew Brunson will land at a military base near Washington on Saturday and will likely visit the White House the same day, President Donald Trump said on Friday.
“We’re very honoured to have him back with us,” Trump told reporters, referring to the Brunson’s release. “He suffered greatly but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people,” Trump added, saying no deal had been made with Turkey on lifting US sanctions in exchange for Brunson’s release.
The court passed a three years and one-and-a-half-month sentence on Brunson, who had been charged with terrorism offences, but said he would not serve any further time because he had already been detained since October 2016.
“This is the day our family has been praying for – I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States,” Brunson said in a statement. “It’s been an extremely difficult time for our family and we want to express our appreciation to the millions of people around the world who have faithfully prayed for this day.”
He voiced gratitude to Donald Trump, who has been trying to convince Turkey to release Brunson for months.
“My entire family thanks the president, the administration, and Congress for their unwavering support,” Brunson said.
Witnesses said Brunson wept as the decision was announced. Before the judge’s ruling, the pastor told the court: “I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey.”
The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years and was arrested two years ago, had led to US tariffs against Turkey and drawn condemnation from Trump.
Brunson was charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. Brunson denied the accusation and Washington had demanded his immediate release.
Earlier, witnesses told the court that testimonies attributed to them against the pastor were inaccurate, heightening expectations that Brunson could be released and returned to the United States.
Brunson appeared in the courtroom in the western coastal town of Aliaga wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie. His wife Norine looked on from the visitors’ seating area as he listened to testimony from defence and prosecution witnesses.
“I do not understand how this is related to me,” Brunson said after the judge questioned one of a series of witnesses. He said the judge was asking the witness about incidents Brunson was not involved in.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse