Andrew Brunson, American pastor detained in Turkey, is freed, sentenced to time served


Andrew Brunson, the American pastor who was imprisoned and then placed under house arrest in Turkey over his alleged ties to an outlawed group, was ordered freed on Friday and sentenced to time served, a Turkish judge ruled.
The decision ended a tense diplomatic standoff between the U.S. and Turkey that began following Brunson’s October 2016 arrest. The 50-year-old pastor was facing terror and espionage-related charges and was detained by Turkey as part of a government crackdown following a failed coup attempt months earlier.
Brunson appeared Friday at prison complex in Izmir for his fourth hearing, telling a courtroom that he is "an innocent man.
“I love Jesus, I love Turkey,” he said, according to the Associated Press.
Prosecutors had accused Brunson of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups, linking him to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.
Brunson -- who is from North Carolina and led a small congregation in the Izmir Resurrection Church -- had routinely denied all of the claims. He appeared at the hearing Friday wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie, while his wife Norine watched from the visitors seating area, according to Reuters.
The court on Friday called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at a previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. But the new witnesses did not confirm Kalkan's accusations and another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.
Brunson on Friday also again denied accusations that his church aided Kurdish militants, saying he had handed over a list of Syrian refugees the congregation had helped and adding that Turkish authorities would have identified any terrorists.
"We helped everyone, Kurds, Arabs, without showing any discrimination," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
Brunson was arrested and detained for 18 months before finally being charged by the Turkish government with being connected to the coup attempt.
U.S. officials had rejected the accusations as well, and amid mounting pressure from them, Brunson was moved from prison to house arrest in July.
The Trump administration had advocated persistently for Brunson's release, leading to an intense economic showdown between the two NATO allies. In August, the U.S. slapped sanctions on an array of Turkish officials and on some goods, sending the Turkish currency into freefall.
Brunson was not the only American behind bars in Turkey on questionable charges. Several Turkish-American citizens, including a NASA scientist Serkan Golge and several workers from the United States Embassy in Ankara too, are languishing in prison under government accusations they were connected to the Gulen group.