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Israel freed Turkish detainee in failed US bid to release pastor, official says

Israeli official says US President Donald Trump called Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu to ask him to let Ebru Ozkan go in a 'trade' for pastor
Last month, Ebru Ozkan's sister Elif told Middle East Eye that her sister's detention was 'totally arbitrary' (AFP/Twitter)

Israel freed a detained Turkish woman following a request from US President Donald Trump, an Israeli official has said, after the Washington Post reported that the deal was part of a failed White House bid to get Ankara to release a jailed US pastor.

Israel deported Ebru Ozkan on 15 July, a week after indicting her for ties to the Palestinian group Hamas - charges she denied through her lawyer.

She had been arrested by Israel while on a tourist visa in June.

Ozkan's release came three days before US pastor Andrew Brunson appeared in court in Turkey on 18 July amid US calls for his release.

Brunson, who denies charges of links to a group Ankara says was behind a failed 2016 coup, was not freed at that hearing but was released from jail and placed under house arrest on Wednesday.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a 14 July phone call to let Ozkan go in a "trade" Brunson, who has spent 21 months in Turkish detention.

"I can confirm that there was such a request by President Trump," an Israeli official told the Reuters news agency on Friday on condition of anonymity.

Ozkan, 27, a secretary with a private company in Istanbul who is studying foreign trade through an online university, travelled in early June for a four-day visit to Jerusalem with a tour group of more than 30 others.

On 11 June, as she attempted to board her flight home at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Ozkan was arrested and referred to a military court on charges of threatening Israeli security and suspected affiliation with Hamas which Israel designates as a terrorist group.

However, a senior Turkish official speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity denied the allegation, saying it was "totally unfounded".

Ozkan's lawyer Omar Khamaisi told Middle East Eye on Friday that he also did not believe there had been negotations to free Ozkan in exchange for Brunson.

"I do not think that the Turkish government bargained her case with the case of the American priest," he said. "Her case is marginal compared to an already invicted and charged person who is spending a thirty years of imprisonment."

He added that "the decision to release the Turkish woman was on 10 July while the case of the American priest came after that date."

'She is not even political'

Last month, Ozkan's sister Elif had told Middle East Eye that her sister's detention was "totally arbitrary".

"My sister has no connection to any terror organisations. She devoted her life to kindness. The only thing she took there was balloons, chocolates and candies. She is not even political," Elif said.

"They have no evidence. It's been 18 days that we haven't heard her voice. My father has heart problems, my mother is anxious. We're worried."

Turkey's failure to release Brunson prompted the US on Thursday to threaten sanctions against Ankara.

"The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being," the US president wrote on Twitter.

"He is suffering greatly. This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"

Turkey responded by rebuking the US, stressing that Brunson's case is in the hands of the country's "independent judiciary".

Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades and ran a Protestant church in the city of Izmir, was one of the hundreds of people swept up in arrests by Turkey following the coup attempt.

The pastor, who faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty, denies the charges of helping the group that Ankara blames the coup, as well as supporting the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

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