N.C. pastor Brunson leaves Turkish prison for house arrest

A prison vehicle, believed to be carrying jailed NC pastor Andrew Brunson, leaves from the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

ISTANBUL – The American Christian pastor on trial in Turkey for terrorism charges left prison on Wednesday, live television footage showed, hours after a Turkish court ruled he be transferred from jail to house arrest.

Footage from broadcaster DHA showed Andrew Brunson, a Christian pastor from North Carolina who has worked in Turkey for more than 20 years, being escorted by officials from his prison in the coastal city of Izmir. He departed from the prison shortly after, in a convoy of cars.

A Turkish court ruled on Wednesday that Brunson be transferred from jail to house arrest, his lawyer said, after nearly two years in detention on terrorism charges in a case which has strained ties between Ankara and Washington.

Jailed U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson’s wife Norine Brunson leaves from Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal AslanBrunson has worked and lived with his family in Turkey for two decades, but was detained in October 2016 and indicted on charges of helping the group which Ankara says was behind a failed military coup earlier that year.  Brunson‘s lawyer Ismail Cem Halavurt confirmed Turkish media reports that the court had ruled for him to be moved to house arrest. He will have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet and is banned from leaving the country, Halavurt said.

Ismail Cem Halavurt, lawyer of the jailed pastor Andrew Brunson, talks to media in front of the Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in Izmir, Turkey July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

A week ago the same court rejected a call by Brunson‘s defense for his release. State-owned Anadolu news agency said the court decided, after re-evaluating the case, that he could leave prison on health grounds and because he would be under effective judicial control.

It said Brunson‘s defense had been completed and evidence for the case was almost all collected.

Brunson‘s detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara – also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey’s plan to buy missile defenses from Russia.

The pastor, who denies the charges, faces up to 35 years in jail if found guilty.

“Today’s decision by the Turkish Court system to move Pastor Andrew Brunson from prison to house arrest is a step in the right direction and will help alleviate some of the unacceptable hardship and anguish Pastor Brunson and his family have endured over the last 20 months,” read a Wednesday statement from Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) who is sponsoring legislation in support of Brunson. “The Government of Turkey should now release Pastor Brunson and immediately return him to the United States, an action that would begin to restore the longstanding friendship between our two nations.”

Senator Tillis was one of the leaders of a bipartisan letter signed by 71 senators to President Erdogan calling for Brunson’s release. Tillis visited Turkey twice, including meeting with Pastor Brunson and attending his trial on April 16th.

President Donald Trump said in a tweet last week that Brunson was being held hostage and that Erdogan should “do something to free this wonderful Christian husband & father.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill last month including a measure that prohibits Turkey from buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets because of Brunson‘s imprisonment and Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system.

N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis and five other senators introduced bipartisan legislation that would stop international financial institutions from loaning money to Turkey “until the Turkish government ends the unjust detention of U.S. citizens,” a senate committee statement said.

“The Turkish government should be fully aware that their continued wrongful imprisonment of Pastor Brunson and other innocent American citizens will be met with consequences from Congress,” said Tillis. ”Maintaining the longstanding partnership between the United States and Turkey is in the best interest of both nations, and will require President Erdogan and his government to begin treating American citizens in Turkey with the respect and due process rights we would expect from a NATO ally.”

The bill, dubbed the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, directs the U.S. executive of the World Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to oppose future loans, except for humanitarian purposes, to Turkey, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations statement said.

It said the opposition should continue until Turkey is “no longer arbitrarily detaining or denying freedom of movement to United States citizens (including dual citizens) or locally employed staff members of the United States mission to Turkey.”

The United States and Turkey have been formal military allies since Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952, but this incident has strained ties between the nations.