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Turkish court grants release of American pastor Andrew Brunson

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A Turkish court on Friday ordered the release from house arrest of an American pastor at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the U.S., a day after NBC News reported the two countries had struck a deal to allow him to walk free.

The court sentenced Andrew Brunson to three years in jail, but said the evangelical pastor would be released because of time served. Brunson had been held in Turkey for two years.

Shortly after the verdict was announced, President Donald Trump tweeted that Brunson "will be home soon."

Image: Andrew Brunson, center, sits inside a car as he arrives for his trial in Izmir
Andrew Brunson, center, sits inside a car as he arrives for his trial in Izmir Friday.DHA / AP

Brunson, 50, of North Carolina, was charged with being linked to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric whom Turkey blames for plotting a failed coup attempt in 2016. Brunson has denied the accusation.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative group that has been working on Brunson's release, said Brunson was already on a plane to the United States.

“We’re grateful to the president, members of Congress and diplomatic leaders who continued to put pressure on Turkey to secure the freedom of Pastor Brunson," said Jay Sekulow, the center's chief counsel and one of Trump's personal attorneys. "The fact that he is now on a plane to the United States can only be viewed as a significant victory for Pastor Brunson and his family.”

On Thursday, NBC News learned that the White House expected Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the U.S. in the coming days.

Trump announced economic sanctions against Turkey in August after talks with Ankara failed to result in Brunson’s release. He also has publicly called for Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release the pastor.

There was heavy security earlier as Brunson arrived in a convoy of vehicles before daybreak for Friday's hearing. Brunson appeared in the courtroom wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie. His wife, Norine, looked on from the visitors' seating area as he listened to testimony from defense and prosecution witnesses.

"I do not understand how this is related to me," Brunson said after the judge questioned one of a series of witnesses heard before a lunch recess. He said the judge was asking the witness about incidents Brunson was not involved in.

Witnesses also told the court that previous testimony attributed to them against the pastor was inaccurate.

One denied telling prosecution witness Levent Kalkan that a member of Brunson's church was linked to militants.

"I did not say it to Mr. Kalkan. I heard it from him," the witness said.

"I am really shocked now," Kalkan responded. Kalkan also told the court that some of his previous testimony had been "misunderstood.”

Brunson who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, rejected the charges and strongly maintained his innocence. He is one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed the failed coup against the Turkish government.

Yuliya Talmazan reported from London; Aziz Akyavaz from Izmir.

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