US pastor leaves Turkey after release

Europe (HRNW): A US pastor has left Turkey after more than two years in detention in a case that badly strained ties with the US. Andrew Brunson left from the western city of Izmir in a US military plane bound for Germany, his lawyer said. President Trump said Mr Brunson would probably visit the White House on Saturday after landing in the US. Earlier, a Turkish court sentenced Mr Brunson to three years in jail – but freed him because of the time he had already spent in detention. He was arrested over alleged links to political groups, including the banned Gulenist movement, after a failed coup attempt in 2016. Additional espionage charges against him were dropped. “This is the day our family has been praying for, I am delighted to be on my way home to the United States,” Mr Brunson said in a statement.

“My entire family thanks the president, the administration, and Congress for their unwavering support,” he added. Speaking to reporters in Cincinnati, Mr Trump said he was “honoured” to have Mr Brunson back in the US. “He suffered greatly but we’re very appreciative to a lot of people,” he said. Mr Trump denied reports in US media that the US struck a deal with Turkey to lift sanctions to secure Mr Brunson’s release. 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. He also faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of espionage.

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 is innocent of all charges. 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”. “I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” he said. 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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