Turkish court releases US pastor Brunson after eventful hearing
Banu Şen - ALİAĞA
A Turkish court has ruled for the release of an American pastor at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the United States after a hearing on Oct. 12 during which key witnesses flipped and the prosecution softened.
The evangelical pastor was accused of terror-related charges and espionage, facing up to 35 years in prison.
After an eventful hearing, the court sentenced Brunson to three years and one month in prison for aiding a terrorist organization, while ruling for his release from house arrest pending appeals procedures.
"We're grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson," said lawyer Jay Sekulow in a statement. "The fact that he is now on a plane to the United States can only be viewed as a significant victory for Pastor Brunson and his family."
Fahrettin Altun, the Turkish presidency's communications director, said in a statement that the ruling "reaffirmed that Turkey is a democratic country with the rule of law, and established the independence and impartiality of the Turkish judiciary."
"Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from any body, authority, office or person. We make our own rules and make our own decisions that reflect our will," he added.
Key witnesses flip at final hearing
The ruling was partly in line with the prosecution’s final case, which demanded the court to lift “precautionary judicial measures” while asking for a 10-year sentence.
The flipping of key witnesses in the last hearing was seen as surprising by some observers, like the relatively softened stance of the prosecution.
In the first part of the hearing that took place until the noon break, three witnesses of the prosecution, as well as a witness of the defense, testified.
One of the witnesses, Büşra Fatma Ün, said she had never heard before that the members of the illegal PKK were treated at a hospital owned by a friend of Brunson and were then sent to Syria to fight.
Another witness, who was unidentified, said he had never seen the members of which the Turkish authorities label as FETÖ in a prayer house by Brunson. He said he had heard it only as a rumor.
On the other hand, another unidentified witness also backtracked from his claim that a Syrian member of Brunson’s congregation was making bombs for terror attacks.
Retracting his earlier statements in the indictment, the witness said he is a nationalist and views all Syrians as terrorists.
Brunson reiterated his innocence in the final hearing, asking the court to acquit him.
The pastor was imprisoned for nearly two years before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.
The court’s decision of house arrest had failed to improve tensions between the two NATO allies, and Washington sanctioned two Turkish officials and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports.
The U.S. attempts for the release of the pastor have intensified ahead of a Congress election in November. Brunson has been the highest profile case, but moreover, the U.S. administration wants the release of other detained American citizens, along with two locally employed U.S. consulate staff.
Following a major escalation of tensions in August, the bilateral ties have been in slight thaw since September. Erdoğan and his American counterpart Donald Trump, who had been in a war of words just one month ago, spoke briefly in late September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.