US Pastor Andrew Brunson Released, Allowed to Leave Turkey

Mark Wilson  Getty Images North America

Mark Wilson Getty Images North America

U.S. evangelical Christian pastor Andrew Brunson is on a plane home to the United States after the Turkish court ruled he should be released, according to lawyer representing his family.

The United States has brokered a deal with Turkey for the release of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, after nearly two years of him being held in a Turkish jail. An earlier charge of espionage was dropped.

A lawyer for Brunson said Friday that he was on his way back to the U.S.

The pastor told the court he is "an innocent man".

Brunson's wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors' area.

As the Americans urge Turkey not to use the system, Turkish officers worry about the potential for further sanctions after the delay of the F-35s.

His wife, who lived in Turkey with Brunson, was afraid to leave the country during his imprisonment because she was afraid she would not be allowed to return, Tillis told McClatchy in April.

Brunson professed his innocence and argued he was being persecuted for his Christian faith, as did the United States government. Turkish officials say they fear Saudi Arabia killed and dismembered Khashoggi, without offering evidence explaining why they believe that.

The decision will mark a step toward improved relations between the USA and Turkey.

New prosecution witnesses are expected to testify on Friday.

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Erdogan had said he wouldn't hand Brunson back to the United States, but analysts at the Eurasia Group note that the Turkish President has recently shifted position, saying the decision wasn't his to make but would be made by the independent Turkish judiciary.

Rumours of a potential deal had circulated after NBC cited sources which said that the U.S. would remove sanctions in exchange for certain charges being dropped against Brunson.

Turkey has urged the halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria.

The pastor was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them, and sentenced to three years in prison. He was one of thousands caught up in a wide-scale government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.

"President Trump and his team have been tenacious in seeking the release of Pastor Brunson", Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Brunson, said in a statement.

Brunson on Friday also again denied accusations his church aided Kurdish militants.

"We helped everyone, Kurds, Arabs, without showing any discrimination", he said.

The North Carolina church leader was among hundreds of others; academics, civil servants and journalist, arrested around the same time. It had moved Brunson from prison to house arrest in July. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun, repeated the president's stance that Turkey would not bow to threats of sanctions and said the court's ruling Friday proved the judiciary's independence. But he had previously undermined that stance, suggesting a possible swap of Brunson for Gulen.

Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, the North Carolina native wept as the decision was announced, witnesses said.

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