US pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey, in this July 25 2018 file photo. Picture: DEMIROREN NEWS AGENCY/DHA VIA REUTERS
US pastor Andrew Brunson reacts as he arrives at his home after being released from the prison in Izmir, Turkey, in this July 25 2018 file photo. Picture: DEMIROREN NEWS AGENCY/DHA VIA REUTERS

Istanbul/Ankara/Washington — US pastor Andrew Brunson is on a plane home to the US after a Turkish court ruled he should be released, according to lawyer representing his family.

"We're grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of pastor Brunson," lawyer Jay Sekulow said in a statement.

"The fact that he is now on a plane to the US can only be viewed as a significant victory for Pastor Brunson and his family." 

The court in Izmir freed Brunson after holding him in prison for almost two years, removing a key source of tension between Turkey and the US. It had convicted Brunson, an evangelical pastor from North Carolina, and sentenced him to three years, one month and 15 days in jail, but lifted all judicial controls and released him after accounting for penalty reductions and time served.

Brunson had been accused of collaborating with terrorist groups and participating in a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. His prolonged imprisonment led the US to impose sanctions on two Turkish ministers and threaten further penalties were he not released.

The lira reversed a gain to a loss after the decision, trading 0.5% lower at 5.9511 per dollar as of 4.40pm in Istanbul.

Brunson had lived in the Aegean coastal city of Izmir for more than 20 years before being arrested on espionage charges in 2016 as part of a crackdown following the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He was transferred to house arrest in July because of poor health, but US officials had expected him to be freed at that time.

Brunson’s continued detention — and Erdogan’s refusal to release him despite intense pressure from the White House — was a significant factor in a precipitous decline in US-Turkey relations in recent months. Furious over Turkey’s refusal to let him go, US President Donald Trump doubled metal tariffs on Turkey in August and slapped sanctions on two senior Turkish officials involved in Brunson’s detention.

Turkish officials had sought meetings with the US to negotiate a resolution to the Brunson case and other issues, but in August national security adviser John Bolton declared no such talks would proceed until Brunson was let go. In the meantime Turkey’s lira continued its fall, losing about 25% of its value in August alone.

Officials have hoped Brunson’s release could serve as a catalyst for improving ties between Turkey and the US Turkey has played a role in the fight against Islamic State in neighbouring Syria and has the second-biggest military in Nato. At the same time, Erdogan has made US leaders increasingly nervous because of his drift toward authoritarianism and pursuit of better ties with Russia.

The tension over Brunson’s arrest had become a source of frustration and personal embarrassment for Trump, who believed Erdogan backed out of a deal in July to release him. Trump and Erdogan were seen at a July Nato summit in Brussels giving each other a fist bump, reportedly after working out a deal to free the pastor.

Brunson denied the charges against him, which included conspiring to help topple Erdogan and fanning ethnic tension. He was accused of contacting people linked to Fethullah Gulen, a prominent Turkish cleric living in exile in the US whom Erdogan has blamed for the coup. Turkey has unsuccessfully pressed the US to extradite Gulen, who denies involvement in the coup attempt.

Three other people detained in Turkey have further fuelled strain between the US and Turkey. They include Nasa scientist Serkan Golge and three Turkish employees of the US mission to Turkey. The US says they’re innocent and being held by Turkey to extract concessions on other points of tension in the US-relationship.

Reuters, Bloomberg