A major sore point in relations between the U.S. and Turkey appeared to be resolved on Friday when a Turkish court ordered the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been in custody since October 2016. Brunson, who had lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has been charged, dubiously, with links to Kurdish militants and to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based cleric accused by Turkey of a 2016 coup attempt. At his trial on Friday, Brunson was convicted of aiding terrorism but sentenced to time served. Travel restrictions on him were lifted, meaning he is now free to leave Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has sent mixed signals on Brunson’s trial, insisting both that it was an independent judicial process in which Erdogan had no power to intervene but also dropping hints that it was more of a hostage negotiation. Erdogan had, for instance, suggested that Brunson could be released if the U.S. were willing to extradite Gülen, currently living in Pennsylvania.
On Thursday, NBC reported that Turkish and U.S. officials had met on the sidelines of the recent U.N. General Assembly in New York to reach an agreement on Brunson’s release. The circumstances of Brunson’s release Friday were pretty close to what was reported ahead of time, firmly suggesting the “trial” was anything but a political process. Erin Cunningham of the Washington Post reports that several of the witnesses Friday contradicted previous testimony, with one saying investigators had misunderstood his original testimony suggesting Brunson had harbored coup suspects.
It’s not clear yet what Turkey gets out of the deal, but it will probably involve some relief from the sanctions and tariffs that have had a serious impact on Turkey’s economy in recent months. Those sanctions were put in place in late July, reportedly after Turkey reneged on a previous deal with the U.S. by moving Brunson to house arrest rather than releasing him.
Despite Trump’s frequent praise for Erdogan, U.S.-Turkey relations have been rocky lately over a number of issues including U.S. support for Kurdish groups in Syria, the FBI’s arrest of a prominent Turkish Iranian gold trader in New York, and the shielding of Gülen. But from the United States’ point of view, the Brunson case has been the biggest source of consternation. Evangelical Christians in particular have taken a major interest in his cause. Vice President Mike Pence spoke out repeatedly about the pastor’s imprisonment, and Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow represented Brunson’s family through his organization, the American Center for Law and Justice.
The Trump administration will, rightly, claim Brunson’s release as a diplomatic victory. It could also lead to something of a reset for U.S.-Turkish relations, particularly as the two sides aren’t as far apart on Syria policy as they once were. But it’s important to remember that Brunson wasn’t the only American targeted in Erdogan’s post-coup purge. Former NASA scientist Serkan Golge remains in prison on charges of belonging to the Gülen movement—his sentence was reduced from seven and a half to five years in September. The evidence against him includes his possession of a U.S.$1 bill, supposedly a calling card for the Gülen movement, according to Turkish authorities. Golge’s case has gotten far less attention than Brunson’s, which Golge’s wife has publicly suggested could be because they are Muslim. Several Turkish employees of the U.S. embassy also remain in jail. And, of course, that’s not to mention the thousands of Turks rounded up and detained on dubious charges in the past two years by this NATO member and U.S. ally.