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Press reports indicated top White House officials had reached a deal with Turkish authorities for the release of Andrew Brunson, but inside the courtroom on Friday the outcome was far from clear.
The American pastor’s fourth courtroom appearance since Turkish authorities detained him in October 2016 began with a morning session where new witnesses were allowed, including for the first time a defense witness testifying on Brunson’s behalf. At the same time, witnesses for the prosecution retracted all or parts of their testimony, which included uncorroborated evidence Brunson had spied on behalf of the CIA and had assisted terror groups operating inside Turkey.
“I read it in the newspaper,” “I did not say such a thing,” the witnesses recounted in backing away from testimony that previously had consumed hours of courtroom time in April, May, and July when Brunson’s case came before the three-judge panel in Izmir in day-long hearings.
The government prosecutor, originally demanding a 35-year sentence for Brunson, requested instead a 10-year sentence. But as Friday's morning session extended into the afternoon, the prosecutor turned to rereading the entire indictment against Brunson—a laundry list of charges that took about 45 minutes to recite. As hopes for Brunson’s release had begun to soar in the courtroom, they were replaced by fear as the prosecutor asked the judges to send Brunson back to prison.
“Oh no, here we go again,” thought Bill Devlin, a New York pastor who has attended each of Brunson’s court appearances. “It was very emotional for everyone.”
Devlin, seated inside the courtroom near U.S. officials and Brunson’s wife Norine, said that Brunson then left the table where he was seated alone before the judges and went to Norine, and the two embraced, in tears, fearing the worst.
Brunson told the court: “I am an innocent man on all these charges. I reject them. I know why I am here. I am here to suffer in Jesus’ name.”
The Turkish judges did, in the end, relent, but first they convicted Brunson on terrorism and espionage charges and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in prison. But they released him for time served and good behavior, and lifted a travel ban in place. The order left in place approximately one year unserved time, but made it possible for Brunson, who was moved from prison to house arrest in July, to leave the country.
“We are exhausted but elated,” said Richard White, the Brunsons’ North Carolina-based pastor who also had attended Brunson’s Izmir trial. White said Brunson left the courtroom in police custody, while his wife Norine traveled with U.S. Embassy officials. The couple returned to their home in Izmir, where Brunson’s monitoring ankle bracelet was reportedly removed, before boarding a plane to leave the country. World Watch Monitor reported Brunson was expected to leave for the airport at 9 p.m. local time, 2 p.m. EDT. White did not confirm what their destination or future plans would be.
Brunson’s release comes at the end of a lengthy diplomatic and church-based campaign, as churches around the world took up prayer vigils launched by Brunson’s Evangelical Presbyterian Church denomination, where he has served as a missionary and with Turkish believers started Resurrection Church in Izmir. In July Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Ambassador for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback announced sanctions against Turkey for its treatment of Brunson at a high-level Washington gathering on religious freedom.
Targeted sanctions, including designations against Turkey’s ministers of justice and interior, precipitated a freefall in the Turkish lira, which this year has lost 40 percent of its value. The economic peril has tested the hostage diplomacy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has jailed dozens of Americans like Brunson, along with tens of thousands of others, under emergency laws enacted in 2016.
“What we’re celebrating today is a good outcome,” said Travis Weber, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council (FRC), even though it ended with a guilty verdict. Weber attended Friday's proceedings in Izmir along with FRC head Tony Perkins, who was on hand as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“Pastor Brunson has always maintained his innocence, and when you have a pastor who is peacefully leading a church prosecuted for terrorist activity without evidence, that’s obviously a problem,” said Weber. “It tells us there’s work to be done on religious freedom worldwide, including Turkey, but this is a good result today.”