US pastor Andrew Brunson touched down in the US after leaving Turkey. He had spent two years in detention on espionage and terrorism charges.
President Donald Trump met with pastor Andrew Brunson at the White House on Saturday, just a day after a Turkish court released the man at the center of a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington.
Sitting together with the pastor, his family, officials and Christian leaders in the Oval Office, Trump presented Brunson's release as a success of his administration's hard stance with the Turkish government. Insisting no concessions were granted to Turkey, Trump suggested a major hurdle in the relationship between the two NATO allies had been lifted.
Brunson thanked the administration for "fighting" hard for his release. Taking a knee and touching the president's shoulder, Brunson then led a prayer asking God to grant Trump "supernatural wisdom."
Trump, who is not religious, appeared to relish the publicity as evangelical leaders praised his administration for securing the release of the pastor. It comes just weeks before the November mid-term elections in which Republicans are relying on evangelical Christian support.
A Turkish court on Friday sentenced Brunson to over three years in jail on a "terror" charge, but said that he would not spend time in prison due to good behaviour and the time he had already spent in custody. The court lifted Brunson's house arrest and travel ban, allowing him to leave Turkey. The charge of espionage was dropped.
In the trial, the prosecutor had called for a sentence of up to 10 years against the evangelical preacher for alleged links with Kurdish militants and the movement of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States and who Ankara blames from the July 2016 failed coup attempt.
At the same time, however, the prosecution urged the court to lift the measures which kept Brunson under house arrest and stopped him from travel outside Turkey.
In response, Brunson said he should be acquitted. "I'm innocent, I love Jesus, I love Turkey," he said.
Who is Andrew Brunson?
The evangelical preacher had lived in Turkey for 23 years, serving as pastor at the Izmir Resurrection Church. A married father of three, Brunson was in the process of applying for permanent residency in Turkey when he was arrested on October 7, 2016 along with his wife Norine, though she was released 13 days later.
Why is he important?
The imprisonment of Brunson further complicated the already-tense relationship between NATO allies Turkey and the US. Following a a Turkish court decision in July to put Brunson under house arrest instead of a full release, the Trump administration in August sanctioned Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul and Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu.
The sanctions, as well as the imposition of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum, spooked markets and sent the already beleaguered Turkish economy into crisis.
Erdogan had vowed not to be swayed by sanctions, raising the prospect of a dangerous escalation.
Ahead of the Friday verdict, some US media reported of a "secret deal" between Washington and Ankara that would see Brunson released in exchange for some concessions to Turkey. The deal, which the Trump administration denies, may include reduced penalties on Turkish state-owned Halkbank for Iran sanctions busting and the release to house arrest in Turkey of Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was convicted in a US court earlier this year for sanctions evasion.
Aside from his importance in US-Turkey relations, Brunson has become emblematic of the sweeping crackdown Erdogan's government has launched in the wake of the coup. The government has imprisoned or sacked tens of thousands of opposition voices in journalism, education, and the civil service.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Turkey to free "quickly" other Americans in detention.
"The world should know that (Trump and the State Department) continue to work hard to bring home all American hostages and those wrongfully imprisoned and detained," Pompeo tweeted.
NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual US-Turkish national, is serving a five year sentence after being convicted on terror charges. Dual Turkish-American professor Ismail Kul is banned from leaving Turkey pending trial. Two US consulate foreign national employees are also in prison, while the third is under house arrest.
What's next for the US and Turkey?
After Brunson's release, an aide for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the ruling showed that courts in Turkey are "impartial and independent."
"We would like to remind Donald Trump once again that Turkey is a democratic country under the rule of law, and that Turkish courts are independent." said Fahrettin Altun, who serves as Erdogan's communication's director. "Like the Turkish courts, the Republic of Turkey does not receive instructions from anybody, authority, office or person."
Speaking to DW, Sinan Ulgen from the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies think tank said that the US would likely end the sanctions it had imposed over Brunson.
"I think there will be some improvements in the short term, given that this was the most poisonous issue bedeviling the relationship," he said.
However, Turkey and the US face still other "important outstanding issues that will continue to weigh heavily" on their ties, according to Ulgen. Washington and Ankara are still at odds on sanctions against Iran, Turkey's purchase of Russia's S-400 missile defense system and American support for Syrian Kurdish forces.
Even with Brunson's release, "an overall improvement would need additional steps," he told DW.
cw, es, dj/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)