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Politics

‘Good chance’ Turkey will release American pastor tomorrow

ISTANBUL — American Pastor Andrew Brunson, whose detention in Turkey has sparked a tense standoff between Ankara and Washington, will likely be released following a hearing scheduled for Friday, according to his lawyer.

“There is a good chance he could walk free,” Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Haravut, told Yahoo News.

Brunson, a Christian preacher from North Carolina, became the center of a diplomatic row between Ankara and Washington after Turkey jailed him on terrorism charges. Ankara accuses Brunson of having links to groups guilty of orchestrating a failed coup attempt in 2016, through the small evangelical church he has run in the coastal resort city of Izmir for the past 20 years. Washington says the charges are fabricated.

The United States responded with sanctions against Turkey, worsening an economic crisis that has seen the Turkish lira lose nearly 40 percent of its value this year, and brought relations between the two NATO allies to an all-time low.

Brunson’s possible release is part of a breakthrough deal between U.S. and Turkish officials to drop charges against him, NBC reported Thursday, citing two senior White House officials.

While Brunson’s lawyer, Haravut, said he was optimistic about Friday’s hearing, he told Yahoo News he was not aware of any deal securing Brunson’s release.

In Washington, the Trump administration also expressed optimism about Brunson.

“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,” Vice President Mike Pence told reporters Thursday.

State Department officials denied there had been any agreement, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “hopeful” that Turkey would release him soon.

News of Brunson comes at a sensitive time, as Turkish police are investigating the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Leaked reports by Turkish officials allege the Saudis lured Khashoggi to its Istanbul consulate, where they then murdered him and disposed of his dismembered body. Saudi Arabia categorically denies the claims, but has faced an avalanche of international criticism for failing to provide any other explanation.

While Brunson’s Oct. 12 hearing was already scheduled weeks in advance, analysts say his possible release comes at an opportune time for Turkey, which is looking to win support from the U.S. as it faces a political crisis with the Saudis.

“The Khashoggi affair adds a new variable to a complex question the U.S. and Turkey had already found quite difficult to solve. I doubt that the people involved in the negotiations over Brunson had much sleep in the past few days,” said Selim Sazak, an analyst at the Washington-based think tank the Century Foundation.

Turkish and American officials have made several attempts to reach a deal to release Brunson, but negotiations repeatedly failed over Turkey’s rogue economic policy and disagreement over strategy in Syria. Washington believes Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip by Ankara, which argues that his fate is up to the courts.

But amid the frenzied diplomatic crisis that has followed Khashoggi’s disappearance, releasing Brunson now could afford Turkey much-needed leverage from the U.S. in challenging Saudi Arabia.

“Turkey wants to push back against Saudi Arabia for the alleged murder of Khashoggi in Istanbul, but it doesn’t want to push back alone,” said Soner Cağaptay, an expert on Turkey at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with Yahoo News. “If [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan were to release Brunson tomorrow, it would not only reset his relationship with Trump, but also help align the U.S. with Turkey on the Khashoggi issue against the Saudis, killing two birds with one stone,” he said.

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