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Pastor Andrew Brunson’s release could be imminent, Report.
The Rev. Andrew Brunson, a pastor from Black Mountain who has been imprisoned in Turkey for two years, may be released soon, two national news organizations reported Thursday.
The Washington Post and NBC News reported a deal is in place whereby Brunson would be freed and the United States would ease or end economic sanctions against Turkey it put into place in August.
But, officials in the Trump administration said anonymously that while they are cautiously optimistic, Brunson’s release is not a certainty.
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President Donald Trump and his administration reportedly thought Turkey had agreed a few months ago to release Brunson, who has been held for two years on espionage and related charges that the U.S. considers to be manufactured, only to see Turkey renege at the last minute.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters that the U.S. is hopeful he will soon go free but said she was unaware of any agreement on his release.
Trump has demanded his release, and his case has added further complications to an already strained relationship.
“I’m very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson … and his wife will be able to return to the United States,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday. “It’s the right thing for (Turkey) to do, it’s the humanitarian thing for Turkey to do.”
Another session of Brunson’s trial is scheduled for Friday. Trials in Turkey often convene for a day or two then recess for weeks or months and begin again.
Brunson has maintained his innocence throughout.
Turkey’s economy has swooned in recent months, partly because of the U.S. sanctions, and analysts say friction between the U.S. and Turkey over Brunson’s captivity is a major cloud over investors’ decisions regarding Turkey.
The value of the Turkish currency, the lira, has fallen 40 percent this year and inflation stands at a 25 percent annual rate.
Brunson was first taken into custody in October 2016. He is one of thousands of people jailed in Turkey on what many international observers say are dubious charges.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past linked Brunson’s fate with that of Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey says Gulen was an instigator of an unsuccessful 2016 coup and has asked the U.S. to extradite Gulen, but the U.S. says Turkey has not provided evidence to back up the accusation and has allowed Gulen to stay in the U.S.
More recently, Erdogan said he would not put any political pressure on judges hearing Brunson’s case, citing judicial independence.
“I’ll have to abide by whichever decision the judiciary makes,” the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted him as saying, according to Reuters news service. “Those who are subject to it also must obey the judiciary decision.”
Brunson was moved from prison to house arrest in Izmir in southwestern Turkey in July.
He is from Black Mountain and several of his family still live in the area. He had led a church in Izmir before his arrest.
While Brunson’s case has gotten attention in the U.S., particularly among evangelical Christians, it has been even more widely publicized in Turkey.
Erdogan has strongly endorsed Turkey’s position in the case and letting him go might create some domestic fallout for the Turkish strongman. However, Erdogan’s hold on the levers of power in Turkey appears so strong that public opinion of the Brunson case may not be a big worry for him — and, continuing problems with the Turkish economy would pose more of a threat to him than a reversal in the Brunson case.
Turkey is also seeking U.S. support in its dispute with Saudi Arabia over the fate of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist in exile that Turkey says was murdered inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey.
Members of Congress, including Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., have cited the Brunson case and other detentions of people with ties to the United States as a reason not to go through with a planned sale of fighter jets to Turkey.
Another detainee in Turkey is NASA scientist Serkan Golge, who holds dual U.S. and Turkish citizenship. He has also maintained his innocence and many international observers doubt charges against him.
Tillis and three other senators — Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; James Lankford, R-Okla.; and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. — issued a statement late Thursday afternoon expressing hope that Brunson will be released soon.
“It is our greatest hope that (Brunson) will finally be allowed to return home to his family in the United States after his hearing tomorrow,” they said. “This significant step would not only allow the Brunson family to move forward with their lives, but it would help improve U.S.-Turkey relations for the long-term.”
The four said it is time that the U.S. and Turkey “close this ugly chapter in our relations and move from discussing the release of innocent Americans and U.S. Embassy staff to working together as Allies on issues of mutual concern.”