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NC-native pastor Andrew Brunson freed by Turkish court

A second appeal to release an American pastor held in Turkey was rejected Wednesday, his lawyer said, even as Turkish courts ordered the release of two Greek soldiers and a senior human rights official.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A Turkish court has freed pastor Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina-native, two years after he was detained, who was charged with helping to plot a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The court on Friday sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison, but chose to release him based on his time already served, as well as his manner during the proceedings, his lawyer said. Prosecutors were seeking a 10-year jail term.

U.S. Representative Mark Walker (R-N.C.) responded in a statement, saying, “Every American should be proud that we are finally bringing North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson home. His release today, after a two-year unjust imprisonment, was only possible through millions of prayers and the concerted efforts of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo and members of Congress. This needs to be the end point for the many acts of aggression and human rights violations for Turkey and President Erdogan.”

In an effort to exert pressure on Turkey,  154 US House representatives, in a bi-partisan effort, sent a letter to President Erdogan demanding Brunson’s release. Walker also introduced legislation that would direct international financial institutions to oppose loans to Turkey until Brunson, US citizens and consular staff were released.

Turkey detained Brunson in October 2016 in the aftermath of a failed military coup.

Brunson worked as an evangelical Presbyterian pastor at the Izmir Resurrection Church. He has lived in Turkey for more than 23 years with his wife and three children, according to the American Center for Law and Justice, which had advocated for his release.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “Pastor Brunson initially was held in a cell with 21 other inmates that was built to hold only eight prisoners. He was transferred in August 2017 to Kiriklar Prison where he was in a cell with two other men who have been accused of being members of the Gülen movement. He spends 24 hours a day in his cell, leaving for one hour weekly for visits. Sometimes he is allowed family visits and the U.S. Embassy sees him regularly.”

The USCIRF added that Brunson was incarcerated without due process and inadequate physical and psychological support.

Before the verdict, Brunson was able to meet his wife in the courthouse, where they held hands and talked about the possible outcome.

“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” said Brunson, wearing a dark suit and red tie.

Brunson was moved to his home in July this year, placed under house arrest and given a travel ban, in a move seen as a potential step toward his release.

Brunson’s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt told CNN that Brunson’s electronic tag would later be removed and that his client was now a “free man.”

A source, who confirmed Brunson’s travel ban and house arrest had been lifted, told CNN that the next step was to guard his safety and get him out of the country.

A senior White House official cautioned that an intricate “choreography” needed to unfold before Brunson could return to the United States.

He is expected first to fly to Germany for a full medical evaluation at the US’ Ramstein Air Force Base, the official said.

Another source said Brunson was likely to leave the country tonight, and that a US military aircraft from Europe was on standby to transport him out of Turkey.

Turkish-US relations warm

The Brunson decision comes at a time of intense global attention on Turkey, which has locked horns with Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of a Saudi journalist in Istanbul.

Turkish authorities claim to have audio and visual evidence that shows Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was killed inside the Saudi consulate, a source familiar with the ongoing investigation told CNN.

Saudi Arabia firmly denies any involvement in his disappearance.

Brunson’s release is also a step forward in Turkish-US relations, which have shown signs of warming in recent months. Trump and Erdogan met briefly on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September for the first time since relations soured. Shortly afterward, Erdogan said the two countries were likely to weather the storm.

Turkey had good financial and strategic reasons to release Brunson, several analysts have said, including the threat of further US sanctions if Brunson had not been released.

Trump slapped Turkey, a NATO ally, with sanctions in August, targeting the country’s justice and interior ministers.

In August, President Donald Trump told reporters that Turkey had “not acted as a friend” and that the charges against Brunson were “phony.”