A day after reports that the United States worked out a “secret deal” with Turkey, a Turkish court released American pastor Andrew Brunson on Friday.
The North Carolina Christian minister had been held since October 2016 on unsubstantiated charges of terrorism and espionage by the hardline regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Friday afternoon, President Trump told reporters after arriving in Cincinnati that there was no “deal” made with Turkey.
“We spoke to Turkey. He went through a system and we got him out,” Trump said.
“There was no deal made. There was no deal.”
Trump said Brunson was on his way to Germany, where he will be examined by a doctor at Ramstein Air Force Base, and is expected to arrive in Washington Saturday morning.
On Friday, the Second High Criminal Court in western Izmir province convicted Brunson of terror-related charges and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in prison, according to the pro-government Daily Sabah of Istanbul. But the judge said Brunson will not spend anymore time in custody because of time served. Prosecutors had sought a 35-year sentence.
The Trump administration, contending the charges against the pastor are politically motivated, slapped tariffs and sanctions on its NATO ally. Turkey wanted to exchange Brunson for the Muslim cleric it accused of orchestrating the failed coup, Fetullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania.
Jay Sekulow, who represents Brunson’s family and serves on President Trump’s personal legal team, said he is “grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson.”
“The fact that he is now on a plane to the United States can only be viewed as a significant victory for Pastor Brunson and his family,” he said.
Brunson told the court on Friday that he is “an innocent man.”
“I love Jesus, I love Turkey,” he said.
President Trump tweeted: “My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon!”
Vice President Mike Pence tweeted: “Pastor Andrew Brunson is coming home! Thanks to the strong leadership of @POTUS Trump and the steadfast prayers of millions of Americans, this innocent man of faith will soon be home!”
Lauren Brunson, a sister of the pastor, told Fox News her family feels as if it’s been on a roller coaster.
“We’re overjoyed, but it still doesn’t quite seem real,” she said of the news of his release.
The Turkish government’s treatment of her brother, she said, has “been like a nightmare, waiting day after day to see what would happen.”
She thanked Trump, Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and others for their intervention.
“I really don’t believe we’d be here today without the administration that we have in place now, working so hard and so tirelessly to bring Andrew home,” she said.
Lauren Brunson, Pastor Brunson’s Sister: “I really don’t believe we’d be here today without the administration that we have in place now, working so hard and so tirelessly to bring Andrew home.” https://t.co/pRnzGflSaF pic.twitter.com/qJKPOj0quq
— Fox News (@FoxNews) October 12, 2018
“There wasn’t any evidence whatsoever” against him, Lauren Brunson said, “and as a family we are just glad it’s over.”
Graham expressed caution in an interview with Fox News, because Turkey previously reneged on a deal to free the pastor.
“I’m pleased Pastor Brunson is going to be released, but I’m not going to celebrate until he gets home,” the senator said.
Pence said in a speech in July there is “no credible evidence” against the pastor and warned of “significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free.”
The administration then imposed sanctions on two senior Turkish officials, and President Trump authorized a doubling of steel and aluminum tariffs.
NBC News reported Thursday that two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter said a deal to free Brunson would include a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey.
WND reported last week Brunson’s lawyer petitioned Turkey’s highest court to release the pastor from house arrest.
In July, Turkey moved Brunson from prison to house arrest because of health issues. He faces a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison if convicted.
NBC’s sources said an agreement on Brunson’s release was advanced in discussions last month between Turkish and U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Pompeo said in a speech Wednesday to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America he was “very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson will, he and his wife will be able to return to the United States.”
‘Dark ties to terror groups’
Last week, Erdogan accused the Trump administration of using Brunson as a pretext for sanctions, charging the pastor has “dark ties to terror groups, Bloomberg reported.
“We are determined to fight this twisted attitude that has attempted to impose sanctions on our country by using a pastor who has dark ties to terror groups as the pretext,” Erdogan said.
At the U.N. General Assembly last month, Trump and Erdogan had a brief, informal meeting.
The U.S. continues to refuse Ankara’s demands that the cleric Gulen be extradited.
In his speech to parliament, however, Erdogan left open the door for reconciliation
“I believe the U.S. administration will correct its wrong view toward our country sooner or later,” he said. “We hope to solve the matters between us as soon as possible and develop ties with the U.S. in politics and the economy once again, in line with the spirit of being strategic partners.”
In August, as WND reported, the White House, explaining it doesn’t pay ransom for hostages, rejected an offer by Turkey to free Brunson in exchange for forgiveness of billions of dollars in U.S. fines on a Turkish bank.