Trump administration cautiously optimistic pastor jailed in Turkey will be freed

Blanche Robertson
October 12, 2018

The United States and Turkey have quietly agreed to a deal that involves the release of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions, USA news outlets reported on Tuesday.

Two unnamed senior administration officials and a third person briefed told NBC that the US and Turkey reached a deal to secure Mr. Brunson's return home.

"We continue to believe Pastor Brunson is innocent, and the hearing on Friday is another opportunity for the Turkish judicial system to free an American citizen", one of the senior administration officials was quoted by NBC as saying.

Turkey had been close to releasing Brunson before amid detention for charges of aiding terrorist groups.

Brunson was jailed in October 2016 and transferred to house arrest in July.

State Department officials denied there had been any agreement, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was "hopeful" that Turkey would release him soon.

Sources told NBC that negotiations regarding Brunson's release between Turkish and USA officials - which included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton - were "advanced in discussions" in September at the UN General Assembly.

Congress, where anti-Turkey sentiment over the Brunson case has been high, passed legislation freezing the sale of 100 F-35 aircraft to Turkey and giving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis - who opposed the freeze - until next month to prepare a report on how it would affect US security and the defense industry.

Mr Brunson is a long-term resident in Turkey. Brunson is facing terrorism charges, which he denies.

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NBC reported the news, citing the White House sources who added that the USA will ease economic pressure on Turkey as part of the deal. In court on Friday, the prosecution is expected to introduce two new secret witnesses, but Brunson's lawyer Cem Halavurt said their testimonies were not germane to the case.

The pastor, who has run a small evangelical Protestant church since 1993 in the western city of Izmir, has become a cause celebre for US President Donald Trump's conservative Christian base.

The Brunson case has grown into the biggest of several disputes between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation allies and has been one of the factors in a 40 percent slide in value of the Turkish lira this year.

Officials remained cautious, however, in light of a deal that fell apart last summer, with both sides blaming each other for acting in bad faith.

The Turkish lira firmed on the report.

Despite pressure from the Trump administration, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that he has no sway over the judiciary and that the courts will decide on Brunson's fate.

The source cautioned that United States officials are counting on Turkish officials to follow through on their end of the agreement, which appears to now be in place with Brunson due to appear before a Turkish court on Friday.

The American pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016.

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