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Turkish court orders release of US pastor Andrew Brunson

Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, Wednesday, July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

ALIAGA, Turkey - A Turkish court on Friday convicted American pastor Andrew Brunson of aiding terrorism but sentenced him to time served and ordered his immediate release.

The case of the evangelical preacher caught up in Turkey's post-coup security sweep had garnered attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government and become a sore point in the two countries' relations.

In Washington on Friday, Jay Sekulow, an attorney working for Brunson's family and involved in pushing for his release, said the pastor had been released to the custody of U.S. diplomatic officials and would be flown to a U.S. air base in Germany. There, his health would be evaluated and eventually he would be flown back to the United States, Sekulow said.

In Turkey, Brunson's whereabouts remained unclear Friday night. The private broadcaster CNN Turk said Brunson returned to his home in Izmir from the courthouse after the verdict. Sekulow said Brunson was in his apartment and would soon be en route to the airport.

Within minutes of the verdict, President Donald Trump tweeted, "working very hard on Pastor Brunson."

"PASTOR BRUNSON JUST RELEASED," he tweeted later. "WILL BE HOME SOON!"

While Brunson, 50, was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to three years in prison, the judge reduced his sentence to two years time served for good behavior. The pastor has been held under house arrest since July, for health reasons, but that arrangement was also ended so he could leave the country.

"The verdict was the best of a bad situation," Brunson's defense attorney, Ismail Cem Halavurt, said outside the courthouse in western Turkey.

Of Brunson's plans to travel to the United States, Halavurt said: "He is going to go."

"But I hope he is able to come back," he added. "He is someone who absolutely loves Turkey."

The cleric, who is from North Carolina, wept and embraced his wife, Norine, as they waited for the judge to issue the ruling Friday.

His trial had resumed Friday in Aliaga, a district roughly 40 miles from his longtime home in the city of Izmir, just hours after U.S. officials said a deal had been reached with Turkish authorities to secure his release.

He headed a small evangelical congregation in Izmir until his detention two years ago.

The pastor has been held since then on what he and the Trump administration said were false terrorism- and espionage-related charges. Prosecutors accused him of being linked both to Kurdish separatists and to the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Turkish authorities say orchestrated a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Despite his release to house arrest in July, Brunson's ongoing trial has helped deepen a rift between Turkey and the United States, already at odds over the latter's support for Kurdish-led fighters battling the Islamic State in Syria.

Vice President Mike Pence took a particular interest in Brunson's case and has helped mobilize Trump's evangelical political base in support of the cause.

In recent months, the administration made the pastor's release a priority, and in August, the United States imposed sanctions on two senior Turkish Cabinet ministers as a way to pressure authorities here.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had said that his government could not interfere in a judicial case. But U.S. officials said Thursday that an agreement between the two sides to free Brunson was negotiated on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last month.

The deal, they said, would include the lifting of U.S. sanctions in exchange for reduced charges that would allow Brunson to either be sentenced to time served or serve any remaining sentence in the United States.

Turkish prosecutors had sought a 35-year sentence for Brunson, whom they accused of spying and supporting terrorists under the cover of humanitarian aid and interfaith dialogue. That request was later reduced to 10 years at the trial.

Brunson was swept up in the wave of arrests that followed the botched military coup in July 2016, during which tens of thousands of people - including artists, intellectuals and ordinary Turks - were detained. But prosecutors also alleged he supported members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish state.

The PKK is a staunchly secular and leftist organization. The indictment against Brunson quotes a witness as saying congregants at Brunson's Resurrection Church in Izmir province wore the "flags and pennants of the PKK terrorist organization."

But at the courthouse in Izmir's Aliaga district Friday, a string of witnesses for the prosecution, including one who appeared via video conference, gave scattered and at times contradictory testimony.

One witness, Levent Kalkan, said that investigators misunderstood his original testimony, which had implicated Brunson in the harboring of coup suspects in 2016.

The man that Kalkan has said witnessed the protection of the fugitives appeared in court Friday to say he had seen no such thing.

"I never told Levent that," the witness, Yilmaz Demirjan, said.

Brunson, who sat alone in front of a panel of judges and the state prosecutor, was also allowed to speak following each witness's testimony.

"I never met any PKK fighters," he said to the judges in Turkish.

In his final statement to the court just before the verdict was issued, Brunson said: "I'm an innocent man. I love Jesus. I love this country," and broke down in tears.

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The Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig in Washington contributed to this report.

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