Under a secret agreement reached with Turkey, the American pastor held on unsubstantiated charges related to the failed 2016 coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to be released within days, the White House said Thursday.
Andrew Craig Brunson, 50, who is backed by the White House in his contention the charges have been manufactured for political purposes, was arrested in December 2016 after serving more than two decades in Turkey.
NBC News reports two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter say certain charges against Brunson will be dropped at a court hearing scheduled for Friday.
The deal is said to include a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey.
The Trump administration, however, remains cautious, because, an official told NBC, Ankara reneged on an agreement several months ago to release Brunson.
“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 third senior administration official told NBC.
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.
The White House and Brunson’s family won’t comment the report that the pastor’s release is imminent.
However, 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.”
Brunson has been accused of backing outlawed Kurdish rebels and the network led by U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkey blames Gulen for the failed coup attempt against Erodogan, who has responded by bolstering the powers of the presidency and cracking down on dissent.
‘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.
The U.S. has sanctioned Turkish government ministers in response to their treatment of Brunson. Turkey has retaliated with tariffs.
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.