U.S. ‘hopeful’ on pastor’s release, unaware of a deal with Turkey

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration is hopeful that American pastor Andrew Brunson who is on trial in Turkey could be freed at a Friday court hearing, but the State Department said it was unaware of any deal with the Turkish government for his release.

NBC News and The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the United States and Turkey had reached an agreement in which some charges against Brunson would be dropped and he would be released at the hearing or soon after.

In addition to the U.S. State Department, Vice President Mike Pence, speaking at a briefing, declined to confirm any deal, but he voiced hope for Brunson’s release.

“We remain hopeful that with the court proceeding tomorrow that Turkey will see its way clear and free this good man who is guilty of nothing and who has been incarcerated for several years in Turkey unjustly,” Pence said.

“President Trump, our administration, has made it clear that we will continue to stand strong until pastor Brunson is free and back home in the U.S. with his family and his church,” added Pence, a devout Christian who has worked to free Brunson for the last two years.

Two senior administration officials said there was no deal with Turkey for Brunson. “We’re hopeful but it’s a fluid situation,” said one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Four U.S. Senators, including Republican Lindsay Graham and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, released a joint statement saying Brunson’s release would “help improve U.S.-Turkey relations for the long-term.”

“The United States and Turkey are NATO allies and have a number of mutual concerns regarding regional security and stability,” the senators said. “It is time that we close this ugly chapter in our relations.”

The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has become the flashpoint in a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington, triggering U.S. tariffs and sanctions against Turkey and condemnation from President Donald Trump.

U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, accompanied by Turkish security officers, arrives at Aliaga Prison and Courthouse complex in a vehicle in Izmir, Turkey October 12, 2018. Taylan Yildirim, Demiroren News Agency, DHA via REUTERS

Brunson was jailed in October 2016 and transferred to house arrest in July. In court on Friday, the prosecution is expected to introduce two new secret witnesses, but Brunson’s lawyer Cem Halavurt said their testimonies were not germane to the case. Brunson is facing terrorism charges, which he denies.

The Brunson case has grown into the biggest of several disputes between the NATO allies and has been one of the factors in a 40 percent slide in value of the Turkish lira this year.

Late on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said releasing Brunson would be the right thing for Turkey to do.

NBC cited sources as saying that under an agreement U.S. officials reached recently with Turkey, Brunson would be released after certain charges against him were dropped at his next court hearing.

The Post said the deal included lifting U.S. sanctions, some already imposed and others threatened. Charges against Brunson would be reduced and he would be sentenced to time served or be allowed to serve any remaining term in the United States, the Post said, citing U.S. officials and people close to the case.

The Turkish lira firmed on the report.

Despite pressure from the Trump administration, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has insisted that he has no sway over the judiciary and that the courts will decide on Brunson’s fate.

A Turkish official declined to comment on the deal, citing the ongoing judicial process.

The American pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. Brunson has denied the accusation – as has Gulen – and Washington has demanded his immediate release. Gulen has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted.

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Reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mary Milliken, Leslie Adler, David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman

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