WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump welcomed Friday’s decision by a Turkish court to release US pastor Andrew Brunson, who was arrested two years ago on terrorism charges.
“PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED. WILL BE HOME SOON!” the president wrote on Twitter after learning of the ruling.
A court in Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, convicted Brunson of aiding terrorism and sentenced him to three years, but ordered him freed based on the time he has already spent in custody.
Brunson, 50, is now free to leave Turkey, a country he has called home for more than two decades.
Arrested in December 2016, the Protestant missionary was initially charged with having links to Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher living in exile in the United States who is accused by the Turkish government of being behind a failed coup in the summer of 2016.
In July, a “secret witness” described alleged links between the pastor and the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group that is an enemy of both Gülen’s organization and the Turkish government.
On Friday, prosecutors withdrew the charges of espionage and belonging to terrorist organizations, for which they were demanding a 35-year sentence, saying that Brunson should be charged with “collaborating with a terrorist organization without being a member,” for which they requested a sentence of 5-10 years.
Brunson, who has proclaimed his innocence from the start, was shifted from jail to house arrest a few months ago amid concerns about his health.
Brunson’s case elevated tensions between Ankara and Washington, a relationship that has soured since the failed coup in 2016, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed on Gülen.
Erdogan hinted at the possibility of trading the American pastor for Gülen, who is the subject of an extradition request.
Washington has declined to extradite Gülen on the basis of the evidence submitted by Turkey.