U.S. Pastor Released From Turkey After Spending 2 Years In Prison

Oct 12, 2018
Originally published on October 12, 2018 7:56 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today in Turkey, a court ordered the release of an American pastor held for the past two years. Andrew Brunson spent most of that time in jail. He'd been under house arrest since July. President Trump made Pastor Brunson's case a priority, and Brunson is expected to be in Washington by tomorrow. President Trump told reporters this afternoon that Brunson will visit the White House likely tomorrow as well. NPR's Peter Kenyon joins me from Istanbul. Hey there.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So remind me why Brunson was in Turkey in the first place and what exactly he'd been convicted of.

KENYON: Well, he's a pastor, ran a small church in Izmir in western Turkey for years and years. But after Turkey had this failed military coup in 2016, there was a massive roundup of suspected enemies. And Brunson was caught up in that, basically. He's always denied the charges that he had anything to do with this cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey blames for that coup attempt. The U.S. said the charges were baseless. But he was picked up anyway. He's been in jail or house arrest for a couple of years now.

And then today in court, we had three witnesses who had testified against him suddenly changing their earlier testimony. Somehow he was still convicted after that and sentenced to a little over three years in jail. But then the judges basically suspended the rest of the sentence, removed restrictions on his movement. So he's free to go home.

KELLY: All right, lots of questions about what evidence they actually had against him. Why release him, and why release him now?

KENYON: Well, in some ways, Brunson was caught up in these bilateral tensions between Ankara and Washington. I mean, there were Turkish officials who wanted to see some Turkish executives who had been jailed in the U.S. back in Turkey. And of course Turkey wanted the extradition of this cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, because they have charged him in this coup from 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at one point, give us our pastor; we'll give you yours.

This summer, Trump spoke with Erdogan, and reportedly Trump thought he had an agreement to get Brunson released. Instead he was simply moved to house arrest. Then the U.S. got tougher. They levied sanctions, and then the pressure kept mounting. And then we had this court case, and now he's released.

KELLY: So a lot of moving parts obviously in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. But bottom line, is the release of Pastor Brunson a good development, a breakthrough in U.S.-Turkey relations?

KENYON: It should be an improvement. The question is how much. I mean, this has been a high-profile issue for the Trump administration. It's very important to evangelical Christians in the U.S. They tend to support Trump.

KELLY: And we should mention that Brunson is an evangelical pastor. That's his church that he was running in Turkey.

KENYON: Yeah, absolutely. And so that is the key for the American side of the equation. On the Turkish side of the equation, they now expect these U.S. sanctions that were put on recently to be lifted. But will, for instance, Washington continue delivering F-35 fighter jets to Turkey? Will they re-raise this issue of extraditing the cleric, Fethullah Gulen?

I mean, and there's other problems in the relationship. This was far from the only one - Syria and other things. Possible murder of a Saudi journalist at the consulate of Saudi Arabia here in Istanbul's taking up a lot of attention at the moment.

KELLY: The Jamal Khashoggi case that we've been tracking, all of us, this week.

KENYON: The Jamal Khashoggi case, right. And I think Turkey will at least be relieved to have this Andrew Brunson issue off the table.

KELLY: Thanks, Peter.

KENYON: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting from Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.