US pastor Andrew Brunson freed by Turkish court, flies to Germany

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Andrew Brunson

(CNN) — American pastor Andrew Brunson, released after being detained in Turkey for two years, has landed at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, a senior US administration official said Friday night.

Brunson is expected to spend a brief time at Ramstein before flying to Washington on Saturday, a White House spokesman said. Speaking at a rally in Ohio, President Trump said he plans to meet with Brunson.

Brunson had been charged with helping to plot a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison, but chose to release him based on his time already served, as well as his manner during the proceedings, his lawyer said. Prosecutors were seeking a 10-year jail term.

After his release, Brunson quickly left his home in Izmir, Turkey, and headed to the airport. Two US defense officials said the US had put a military aircraft on standby from Europe to transport Brunson out of Turkey. The senior administration source said Brunson’s wife flew with him.

The case had soured relations between Turkey and the United States, heightened by Trump’s defense of Brunson as his administration elevated religious freedom as a cause.

Speaking Friday at a rally in Lebanon, Ohio, Trump said, “Earlier today we secured the release of pastor Andrew Brunson.”

Bunson, he said, is “free from jail” and was “in the air” on his way to Germany, where he will undergo a “brief check.”

“He’s coming to Washington, DC, tomorrow and we’ll say hello,” Trump said, adding, “He went through a lot … and he’s on his way back.”

A source told CNN that Brunson will be flown to Germany and if he needs medical assistance he may stay in Germany before returning to Washington.

The court’s decision comes a day after a source told CNN that US officials believed they were on the verge of securing Brunson’s release.

Turkey’s presidential office denied any deal with the US had taken place and criticized Trump for tweeting that he had been “working very hard on Pastor Brunson” and his release.

“It is with great regret that we have been monitoring US efforts to mount pressure on Turkey’s independent court system for some time. During this period, our country has been subjected to various threats of sanctions,” said Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency’s communications director, in a written statement.

‘I love Jesus. I love Turkey.’

Before the verdict, Brunson was able to meet his wife in the courthouse, where they held hands and talked about the possible outcome.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” said Brunson, wearing a dark suit and red tie.

Brunson was moved to his home in July this year, placed under house arrest and given a travel ban, in a move seen as a potential step toward his release.

Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, told CNN that Brunson’s electronic tag would later be removed and that his client was now a “free man.”

Turkey detained Brunson in October 2016 in the aftermath of a failed military coup.

Brunson, a native of North Carolina, worked as an evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Izmir Resurrection Church.

He has lived in Turkey for more than 23 years with his wife and three children, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which had advocated for his release.

Turkish-US relations warm

The Brunson decision comes at a time of intense global attention on Turkey, which has locked horns with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist in Istanbul.

Turkish authorities claim to have audio and visual evidence that shows Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate, a source familiar with the ongoing investigation told CNN.

Saudi Arabia firmly denies any involvement in his disappearance.

Brunson’s release is also a step forward in Turkish-US relations, which have shown signs of warming in recent months. Trump and Erdogan met briefly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September for the first time since relations soured. Shortly afterward, Erdogan said the two countries were likely to weather the storm.

Turkey had good financial and strategic reasons to release Brunson, several analysts have said, including the threat of further US sanctions if Brunson had not been released.

Trump slapped Turkey, a NATO ally, with sanctions in August, targeting the country’s justice and interior ministers.

In August, Trump told reporters that Turkey had “not acted as a friend” and that the charges against Brunson were “phony.”

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