• Court convicts North Carolina pastor, allows him to leave Turkey

    By: ZEYNEP BILGINSOY, Associated Press

    Updated:

    ALIAGA, Turkey - A Turkish court on Friday convicted an American pastor of terror charges but released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave Turkey, a move that's likely to ease the tensions between Turkey and the United States.

    The court near the western city of Izmir sentenced Andrew Brunson to 3 years, 1 month and 15 days in prison for the conviction, but since the evangelical pastor has already spent two years in detention he won't serve more time.

    The charge of espionage against him was dropped.

    [Secret witness testifies against North Carolina pastor in Turkey]

    Brunson, whose detention sparked a diplomatic dispute between the two NATO allies, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained his innocence. The United States had repeatedly called for his release and in August slapped sanctions on Turkey.

    Lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt said Brunson, 50, was expected to leave Turkey for the United States.

    The evangelical pastor had faced up to 35 years in jail if convicted of all the charges.

    Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.

    [RELATED: North Carolina pastor on trial in Turkey for terror links, spying]

    He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups and of alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt. 

    Brunson told the court he is "an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey." 

    His trial came as Turkey and the United States are embroiled in another major diplomatic incident regarding a Saudi writer - U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi - who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic mission. Saudi officials reject the claims as "baseless."

    U.S. President Donald Trump said he hopes to have Brunson back in the United States soon.

    Shortly after the verdict was announced, Trump tweeted: "Working very hard on Pastor Brunson!"

    Trump also tweeted: "My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon!"

    Earlier, the court called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at the previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan's accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.

    Brunson again denied accusations that his church aided Kurdish militants, saying he had handed over a list of Syrian refugees whom the congregation had helped and adding that Turkish authorities would have identified any terrorists.

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

    The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, was imprisoned for nearly two years  - detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year - before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.   

    The court's decision at the time failed to improve tensions between the two NATO allies. Washington slapped sanctions on two Turkish officials and doubled tariff on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. Those moves in August, coupled with concerns over the government's economic management, helped trigger a Turkish currency crisis.

    Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had resisted U.S. demands for Brunson's release, insisting that the courts are independent. But he had previously suggested a possible swap of Brunson and the Pennsylvania-resident Fethullah Gulen - the cleric accused of being behind the coup.  

    Gulen has denied the claim.

    Brunson led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, with top representative Tony Perkins monitoring the trial, has listed him as a "prisoner of conscience."  

     William Devlin, an evangelical pastor from New York spoke to reporters outside the Turkish prison, saying hundreds of thousands of Christians were praying for Brunson's release.  

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