American pastor Andrew Brunson flew out of Turkey late Friday after a Turkish court convicted him of aiding terrorism but sentenced him only to time served. His release came one day after U.S. officials said a deal had been reached with Turkey’s government to secure his freedom.
White House spokesman Judd Deere confirmed Brunson’s departure, saying he was due to arrive at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington at noon Saturday after a stop in Germany, according to a pool report.
The case of the evangelical Christian preacher caught up in Turkey’s post-coup-attempt security sweep had garnered attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government and become a sore point in the two countries’ relationship.
Brunson, 50, had been detained for two years on espionage and terrorism-related charges that the pastor and U.S. officials said were false.
“We’re very honored to have him back with us. He suffered greatly,” President Trump told reporters, saying Brunson would visit the White House perhaps as soon as Saturday. “There was no deal at all,” Trump added. “No deal.”
In Turkey, Brunson’s attorney, Ismail Cem Halavurt, acknowledged that his client was returning to the United States but added, “I hope he is able to come back.”
“He is someone who absolutely loves Turkey,” he said.
After announcing Brunson’s conviction, the judge presiding over his trial in a court in western Turkey reduced his three-year-plus sentence to time served on grounds of good behavior.
The pastor, who led a small evangelical congregation in the city of Izmir, had been moved to house arrest in July for health reasons, but that arrangement was also ended so he could leave the country.
U.S. officials said Thursday that the two governments had negotiated an agreement that would see Brunson released in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions on two senior Turkish cabinet ministers — penalties imposed to gain leverage in the Brunson case. The deal was reached on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month, the officials said.
In recent months, the Trump administration had made the pastor’s release a priority. Vice President Pence took a particular interest, helping mobilize Trump’s evangelical political base in support of the cause.
Brunson’s release also came as Turkey was investigating the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who Turkish investigators believe was killed after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last week.
Turkey has briefed U.S. officials on the investigation and is seeking the Trump administration’s support in pressing Saudi Arabia to provide information about Khashoggi’s fate. At the same time, Turkey is trying to avoid a total rupture in relations with the Saudis, analysts said.
In a statement after the Brunson verdict Friday, the office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it had been monitoring “with great regret” what it called U.S. efforts to pressure Turkey’s independent judicial system.
“The President has repeatedly stressed that Turkey would not bow to those threats,” the statement from communications director Fahrettin Altun said. The ruling, Altun said, “reaffirmed that Turkey is a democratic country with the rule of law.”
Brunson’s trial had helped deepen a rift between Turkey and the United States, which were already at odds over the latter’s support for Kurdish-led fighters battling the Islamic State group in Syria.
Prosecutors accused Brunson of being linked to Kurdish separatists in Turkey and their allies in Syria, as well as to Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Turkish authorities say orchestrated a coup attempt in July 2016 and whose extradition Turkey has long sought. U.S. officials have said Turkey has never provided evidence of Gulen’s involvement that would stand up in court.
While the release of Brunson removes a major irritant in U.S.-Turkish relations, those underlying issues remain, along with several others.
Turkey is moving ahead over U.S. objections to purchase the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defense missile system, and the United States has threatened to cancel Turkey’s purchase of U.S. F-35 fighter jets.
Turkey also wants the release of a Turkish banker convicted in the United States after an investigation of alleged violations of oil sanctions against Iran by a Turkish bank. Turkey buys almost half its oil from Iran, and Washington has been pressuring Ankara to stop the purchases when Iran sanctions related to the nuclear deal are snapped back next month.
And in August, Trump doubled tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, which sent the Turkish lira to a record low against the U.S. dollar.
Still, Friday’s development should allow Trump and Erdogan to “reset” relations, one analyst said.
“The differences in bilateral ties remain,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But what matters is that this takes the charge out of the relationship.”
It will calm anti-Turkish sentiment in Congress as well, he said.
“Brunson’s indictment in the U.S. Congress was portrayed as the case of a Christian pastor being persecuted by Muslims,” he said. “And built a sentiment in Congress that there should be no favors given to Turkey until the pastor is released.”
Brunson, who is from North Carolina, wept and embraced his wife, Norine, as they waited for the judge’s ruling Friday.
He was first detained in October 2016, swept up in the wave of arrests that followed the military coup attempt three months earlier and targeted tens of thousands of people, including artists, intellectuals and ordinary Turks.
Prosecutors formally arrested Brunson two months later and issued an indictment in March of this year. The hearing Friday was Brunson’s fourth in the trial held at the Aliaga court complex, 40 miles from his longtime home in Izmir.
Turkish prosecutors had sought a 35-year sentence for Brunson, whom they accused of spying and supporting terrorists under the cover of humanitarian aid and interfaith dialogue. That request was later reduced to 10 years at the trial.
At the hearing Friday, a string of witnesses for the prosecution, including one who appeared via video conference, gave scattered and at times contradictory testimony.
One witness, Levent Kalkan, said investigators misunderstood his original testimony, which had implicated Brunson in the harboring of coup attempt suspects and Kurdish militants in 2016.
The man Kalkan has said witnessed the protection of the fugitives appeared in court Friday to say he had seen no such thing.
“I never told Levent that,” said the witness, Yilmaz Demircan.
Brunson, who sat alone in front of a panel of judges and the state prosecutor, was allowed to speak after each witness’s testimony.
“I never met any PKK fighters,” he told the judges in Turkish.
In his final statement to the court just before the verdict was issued, Brunson said: “I’m an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love this country.”