ISTANBUL, Turkey - In an unusual culmination to a politically-charged affair, a court in Turkey has set free American pastor Andrew Brunson, while at the same time convicting him on charges related to terrorism.
It was a victory for U.S. President Donald Trump who has pressured the Turkish government into releasing Brunson, in the face of heavy sanctions which had helped to puncture the Turkish economy and send it’s currency reeling.
Just as Trump had demanded, the court ruled the two years the pastor had served in detention equated to the sentence being handed down, which meant he was free to leave the country immediately.
The trial of the American pastor whose detention sparked a diplomatic standoff between Ankara and Washington returned to the court in Istanbul on Friday.
Speculation had been circulating suggesting Brunson would be freed, in order to bring an end to the diplomatic crisis.
According to VoA, several news media reported Thursday that the Trump administration had reached a deal with Turkey, easing some sanctions in exchange for Ankara reducing or dropping charges against Brunson.
Washington was expressing cautious optimism about Brunson's release leading up to Friday's resumption of proceedings. The speculation indicated Brunson could be released as early as Friday.
"I'm very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson, he and his wife, will be able to return to the United States," U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters, '"I am not aware of any such deal, there's a legal process that plays out."
"I'm hopeful that before too long he and his wife will be able to return to the United States. That would be an important step forward for the U.S. and Turkey relationship," Nauert said.
She added that U.S. embassy officials would attend Friday's hearing in support of Brunson.
In a sign of Brunson's possible release, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to distance himself from any decision. 'I am the president of the Turkish Republic, a democratic and constitutional state,' Erdogan said Tuesday. 'Hence, I must obey whatever the decision the judiciary gives. All related parties must follow the judicial rulings. That's it,' he added.
Erdogan has been at the forefront of strong advocacy of Brunson's prosecution, as relations with Washington deteriorated.
The American pastor was facing up to 35 years in jail on terrorism and espionage charges. Prosecutors accused Brunson of supporting followers of the U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Turkey for the 2016 failed coup in Turkey. The pastor was also accused of aiding the banned Kurdish separatist group the PKK.
Washington had described the charges as baseless, accusing Ankara of diplomatic hostage-taking.
President Trump, in August, partially in retaliation for Brunson's ongoing prosecution, slapped Turkey with trade tariffs. The action triggered a collapse of the Turkish lira. Erdogan hit back, accusing Washington of waging economic warfare.
'It's not only the evangelicals base of Donald Trump, a wide range of Americans mostly view Brunson and other American detainees as political hostages,' said political analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
'Any normalization of relations is out of the question as long as Brunson is detained,' he added. 'If Brunson is not allowed to return home after Friday's hearing, Trump may become impatient and impose more sanctions.'
The threat of further U.S. sanctions against Turkey's embattled economy was fueling speculation the pastor would be freed, VoA reported.
'Yes, I expect him to be released. There is more and more expectation Turkey will do it,' said international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara's Middle East Technical University.
'With America, I don't expect relations will get worse,' he added. 'On the contrary, there will be durable stability, and in the long run, Turkey-U.S. relations will continue as before. Turkey and America need one another.'
The growing expectation of Brunson's release Friday, and with it, the removal of further U.S. sanctions, was seen as a reason why the Turkish lira has stabilized after weeks of steep declines.