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Andrew Brunson back on American soil after release from Turkey

US pastor Brunson had been held since December 2016 on charges of backing 2016 coup attempt against Turkish president
US pastor Andrew Brunson (left) has been in Turkish custody since December 2016 (AFP)

American pastor Andrew Brunson, held for two years in Turkey on terror-related charges, arrived home in the United States on Saturday, where he was to meet with US President Donald Trump, who signalled an easing in the diplomatic crisis sparked by the case.

Andrew Brunson - who has become a cause celebre for Trump's conservative Christian base - was due at the White House to see Trump shortly after his arrival at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington.

Trump, meanwhile, on Saturday tweeted: "There was NO DEAL made with Turkey for the release and return of Pastor Andrew Brunson. I don’t make deals for hostages."

He followed that with: "There was, however, great appreciation on behalf of the United States, which will lead to good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey!"

Brunson, who had been held in the country on charges of backing a coup attempt in July 2016 against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was released on Friday following a hearing in western Izmir province.

The court in Aliaga sentenced him to three years in jail on terrorism charges but said he would not spend any more time in custody because of the time he has already served. Additional espionage charges against him were dropped.

Witnesses said Brunson wept as the decision was announced. Before the ruling, the pastor told the court: "I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey."

Brunson, accompanied by his wife Norine, left Turkey on a US military plane bound for the US Ramstein airbase in Germany, his lawyer Cem Halavurt told the AFP news agency, adding that he would then continue on to the US.

The White House said Brunson plans to arrive at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland at noon Eastern time on Saturday. He is expected to visit the White House the same day.

The court's verdict comes at a sensitive time for the Turkish leadership, which is under global scrutiny over how it handles the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who disappeared at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul last week.

Both Erdogan and US President Donald Trump have pressed Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi.

The release of the pastor may now help the two sides coordinate their Saudi policy more closely.

"We're very honored to have him back with us," Trump told reporters on Friday. "He suffered greatly, but we're very appreciative to a lot of people."

In a news release issued on Friday, the White House said it welcomed Brunson's release.

"We commend the strength shown by Pastor Brunson and his family over a difficult two years," it said, adding, however, that the US remains "deeply concerned about the continued detention of other United States citizens in Turkey".

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that Turkey should release other American prisoners.

"Pastor (Andrew) Brunson is finally coming home to America, following a long ordeal for the pastor and his family. We hope that the Turkish government will quickly release our other detained U.S. citizens and State Department locally employed staff," Pompeo tweeted.

"The world should know that (President Donald Trump) and the State Department continue to work hard to bring home all American hostages and those wrongfully imprisoned and detained." 

Brunson, an evangelical missionary who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in December 2016 and also accused of aiding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

I am an innocent man. I love Jesus, I love Turkey

- Andrew Brunson in court

The pastor had appeared in court on Friday along with US charge d'affaires Jeffrey Hovenier, to hear the court's ruling.

His case has been the subject of a diplomatic spat between Washington and Ankara.

The US, which had imposed tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminium over Ankara's refusal to release the pastor, had been adamant that Brunson was innocent and had repeatedly asked Turkey to free him.

The row with the US has exacerbated pressures on Turkey's lira, which has plunged more than 40 percent this year over concerns about Erdogan's influence on monetary policy, relations with Washington and the central bank's ability to rein in double-digit inflation.

Brunson is out of jail. Two major hurdles remain for US-Turkey relations
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Erdogan has cast the devaluation of the lira as an "economic war" against Turkey by foreign powers and has warned of action against those believed to be speculating on the economy or taking advantage of fluctuating exchange rates.

In recent weeks, the rhetoric between the two countries has calmed after Turkey told Washington that the conflict could only be resolved if public squabbling stopped, a Turkish diplomat told MEE.

"We knew we had to solve the problem and normalise our relations with the US for the sake of Turkey's economy, but it was not possible to do that amid challenging statements," the diplomat said in late September.

"So we both decided to prevent any more escalation and solve the problem quietly."

Within 20 minutes of the verdict, Trump, who has rallied evangelical voters in his base over the pastor's case, said: "My thoughts and prayers are with Pastor Brunson, and we hope to have him safely back home soon."

He said later in the day that no deal had been made with Turkey on lifting US sanctions in exchange for Brunson's release.

A statement from Erdogan's office said the verdict "proved that Turkey is a democratic state of law and the judiciary is impartial and independent".

"We want to remind the US President Donald Trump one more time that Turkey is a democratic state of law and Turkish courts are independent. As the Turkish courts, the Turkish Republic, too, doesn’t receive instructions from any organs, offices, authorities or people," it said.

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