A Turkish court on Friday ordered the release of an American pastor held for the last two years in Turkey, in a case that sparked a crisis in ties with the United States.
The court in the western town of Aliaga convicted Andrew Brunson on terror-related charges and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail, an AFP correspondent said.
However, he was freed taking into account time served and his good conduct in the trial, with the court lifting his house arrest and overseas travel ban, the correspondent added.
Brunson’s detention since 2016 caused not just one of the worst diplomatic rows of recent times between NATO allies Turkey and the US, but also a crash in the Turkish lira which exposed the country’s economic fragility.
Turkish judicial authorities have repeatedly denied requests for the release of Brunson, who was moved from prison to house arrest in the city of Izmir in July.
“I am an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love Turkey,” he said in his final defence.
When the verdict was read out, Brunson wept and hugged his wife Norine.
It was not immediately clear where Brunson would go next, although some reports suggested he could fly to the United States imminently.
– Secret deal? –
US broadcaster NBC said Turkey and the United States had reached a secret deal for Brunson to be released on Friday and some charges against him dropped, in exchange for the US easing “economic pressure” that included sanctions which have hammered the lira.
But Turkey insists the judiciary is independent and US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said she was “not aware” of any such deal.
The resumption of the trial came 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 Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul.
Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US President Donald 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.
Erdogan, who has in the past taken aim at Brunson, appeared to distance himself from the case in his latest comments, saying he could not interfere in judicial affairs.
“Whatever decision the judiciary makes, I am obliged to obey it,” he told Turkish reporters.
Trump has lauded Brunson as a “great patriot” who was being held “hostage”.
– ‘Strategic partnership’ –
Brunson was first detained in October 2016 on allegations of assisting groups branded as terrorists as part of a crackdown by the Turkish government following a failed coup earlier that year blamed on US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.
He had faced up to 35 years in jail on charges of aiding terror groups and espionage. Prosecutors then demanded a sentence of up to 10 years.
He was convicted on charges of aiding terror groups while not being a member of them.
Brunson and US officials insisted he is innocent of all charges.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper whose columns are closely watched for indications of the Erdogan administration’s thinking, wrote this week he expected the pastor to walk free and “solve” the Turkey-US crisis.
The new hearing also came as Turkey braces for potential fines from US authorities over Iran sanctions busting by Turkish lender Halkbank, which has already seen the jailing of its deputy director general in the United States.
In another less publicised issue, the US is also watching the case of NASA scientist Serkan Golge, a dual national, who was jailed for seven-and-a-half years in February on terror charges, a term reduced to a five years last month.
Erdogan, who had a brief handshake with Trump on the sidelines of the annual UN General Assembly in September, has said he hoped to rebuild relations with Washington with the “spirit of strategic partnership.”