US Pastor to Be Released After Secret Turkey Deal

Sergio Conner
October 12, 2018

The Trump administration is cautiously optimistic that an American cleric who has been held in Turkey for the past two years on espionage and terrorism-related charges will be released soon after a court hearing Friday, according to US officials and people close to the case.

A Turkish court will rule on Friday on the detention of Andrew Craig Brunson - a United States pastor who is at the centre of a diplomatic row between Washington and Ankara.

NBC's sources said an agreement on Brunson's release was advanced in discussions last month between Turkish and usa officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, during the United Nations General Assembly in NY.

The Trump administration is hopeful that Brunson could be freed at the hearing, but the State Department has said it was unaware of any deal with the Turkish government for his release.

"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", a senior administration official told NBC News.

The Trump administration, however, remains cautious, because, an official told NBC, Ankara reneged on an agreement several months ago to release Brunson.

The U.S. and Mr. Brunson deny he had anything to do with it.

Political tensions between the two countries sparked worries in the markets after U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to use economic pressure to secure Brunson's release. 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. "Brunson has been detained on terrorism charges ..."

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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.

Turkey runs "a risk of the US Treasury announcing a substantial fine on Halkbank for violating US sanctions on Iran", its analysts said of the Turkish state-owned bank, adding that, "if Brunson is not released, the odds of Turkey receiving an Iran sanctions waiver from the US in early November for continued oil imports also go down significantly".

Under an agreement senior Trump administration officials recently reached with Turkey, Brunson is supposed to be released after certain charges against him are dropped at his next court hearing, now scheduled for Friday, the senior administration officials and a person briefed on the matter said. Charges against him, which he and the Trump administration have said are bogus, include contacts with the so-called coup mastermind, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a permanent US resident living in Pennsylvania and a longtime political foe of Erdogan.

However, US Vice-President Mike Pence would only say "we remain hopeful".

The Turkish lira firmed on the report.

The officials cited in the report, however, cautioned that Ankara may not follow through on the purported deal.

He blames Pennsylvania-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen for the attempt, but Mr Gulen denies any involvement. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

He faces a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison if convicted.

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