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US and Turkey reach deal to free detained American pastor: Reports

Turkey may free pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for lifting sanctions, Washington Post and NBC News report
Brunson, a missionary who has been working in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in December 2016 (Reuters)

The United States and Turkey have quietly agreed to a deal that involves the release of jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions, US news outlets reported on Thursday.

Senior White House officials told NBC News they believe that charges against Brunson will be dropped at his latest hearing which opened on Friday.

The hearing got underway in a court in Aliaga in western Izmir province, with Brunson present as well his wife Norine and US charge d'affaires Jeffrey Hovenier.

Brunson, a missionary who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, was arrested in December 2016 and accused of backing a coup attempt in July of that year against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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

A Turkish diplomatic source told Middle East Eye that during the last talks between Turkey and the US on Brunson in New York last month, US officials drew a line and said "we have no more to give or to negotiate, release Brunson and let's start talking then".

A US diplomat also confirmed to MEE that Brunson's case had been the subject of talks "at the highest level".

The Turkish diplomat told MEE that a previous deal to get Brunson freed had collapsed when a Turkish court had decided to place Brunson under house arrest in July.

Ankara had then worked with the US to come up with another deal to release the pastor and ease the tension on Turkey's economy, he said.

The release of Turkish banker Hakan Atilla, who is serving a sentence in a US jail for breaching sanctions on Iran, and also investigations into Turkey's state lender Halkbank, again over accusations of violating the sanctions, were on Turkey's agenda.

But the White House drew a line in late September, saying they would not bargain anymore and they wanted to see Brunson free, the diplomat said.

'Free this good man'

On Thursday, the US State Department said it was not aware of any deal.

That was echoed by US Vice President Mike Pence, who declined to confirm any agreement, but voiced hope Brunson would be released.

"We remain hopeful that with the court proceeding tomorrow that Turkey will see its way clear and free this good man who is guilty of nothing and who has been incarcerated for several years in Turkey unjustly," Pence said.

"President Trump, our administration, has made it clear that we will continue to stand strong until pastor Brunson is free and back home in the US with his family and his church."

Norine Brunson departs for her husband's court hearing in Aliaga, in western Izmir province (Reuters)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday: "I am very hopeful that before too long... he and his wife will be able to return to the United States.

“President Trump has had a focus on it, the administration's had a focus on it, and we’re very hopeful that we’ll see a good outcome before too long,” he added.

US officials with knowledge of the situation told the Washington Post they are cautiously optimistic the deal will go through.

The resumption of the trial 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 Trump have pressed Saudi Arabia to explain what happened to Khashoggi.

If the Brunson issue is resolved to Washington's satisfaction, it could help the two sides coordinate their Saudi policy more closely.

'I am not in a position to intervene'

Erdogan has insisted the case is in the hands of the court and said that he had faith in the court's ruling.

"Turkey is governed by the rule of law and court decisions are binding for everyone. I am not in a position to intervene with the judiciary since Turkey is a constitutional state," Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday.

US and Turkey 'quietly' working on release of American pastor
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In a Middle East Eye report in late September, Turkish and US officials said they were working to free Brunson.

“There is a will on both sides to solve this problem,” said a US diplomat. “We both want to leave this problem behind and focus on other areas to further our cooperation; especially Manbij, trade relations, and so on.”

Trump, at the time, tweeted that the US would impose sanctions on Turkey, adding: "This innocent man of faith should be released immediately.”

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.

Erdogan has cast the devaluation in 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.

Additional reporting from Ece Goksedef in Istanbul