A Turkish court has ordered the release of Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelist pastor from North Carolina in the USA. At the hearing on October 12th, key prosecution witnesses retracted or contradicted their previous testimonies. The prosecutor also revised down his earlier call for a 35 year jail sentence to 10 years. Brunson was convicted of terrorism charges and sentenced to three years and one and a half months, but the court took time served into account and the remainder of his sentence was suspended. The interim panel of judges also lifted judicial control provisions, leaving Brunson free to travel outside Turkey.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was indicted on charges of having links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Fethullah Gülen organisation, dubbed by the Turkish government as the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ), which Ankara blames for the failed coup in 2016. Brunson was transferred to house arrest on July 25th. He was jailed in December 2016 and faced a 35 year sentence if convicted of the charges of “committing crimes on behalf of terror groups without being a member” and espionage.
The verdict, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said in a statement, was ultimate proof of Turkey’s “independent and impartial" judiciary and that the country’s courts did not take orders from anyone.
Brunson had been the centre of a bitter diplomatic rift between Turkey and the USA. On August 10th, 2018, President Trump announced in a tweet that tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium from Turkey would be doubled because of Turkey’s failure to release Brunson. This caused the Turkish Lira to plummet even further that day. The release of Brunson indicates that relations between Turkey and the USA are thawing. Despite Trump’s denial of a deal, there has also been a report in the US media that a deal had been made between the two governments relating to Brunson’s release. Such a deal could include the lifting of US sanctions or a reduction of tariffs on Turkey.
There are other outstanding differences between the two countries which may be considered in any possible deal. For example, President Erdoğan had previously suggested Brunson could be exchanged in a prisoner swap for Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a banker imprisoned earlier this year in the US after it was found that the Turkish state-owned Halk Bank had helped Iran evade oil sanctions. Erdoğan is also angry that the US has refused to extradite Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish preacher living in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, just before Brunson’s hearing began earlier today, the Turkish president had once again expressed disappointment that US backed Kurdish militias in Syria have not left the northern town of Manbij, in accordance with a US-Turkish agreement brokered earlier this year. The Turkish government is also looking for support from the American government in its investigation of the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last week. Turkey has maintained Saudi Arabia sent a 15 man assassination team to silence Khashoggi, who has been critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s policies, and needs US help in order to avoid antagonising its already fragile political and trade relations with Riyadh.
The release of Brunson was largely expected and the Turkish Lira gained in the days leading up to the trial hearing on Friday October 12th. The Turkish lira started from TL 6.15 to the dollar on the Monday, and was TL 5.87 to the dollar on Saturday, the day after the hearing, a 4.6% revaluation.