A Turkish court has convicted an American pastor at the center of a Turkish-American diplomatic dispute of terror charges, but has released him from house arrest and allowed him to leave Turkey.
The court near the western city of Izmir sentenced Andrew Brunson to three years and one month in prison for the conviction, but since the evangelical pastor has already spent two years in detention he will not serve more time.
Brunson, 50, had rejected the espionage and terror-related charges and strongly maintained his innocence.
The charge of espionage against him was dropped.
The United States had repeatedly called for Brunson’s release and in August slapped sanctions on Turkey.
Brunson, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, was one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.
He was accused of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups and of alleged links to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a US-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.
Brunson told the court he is an innocent man, saying: “I love Jesus. I love Turkey.”
His trial came as Turkey and the United States are embroiled in another major diplomatic incident regarding a Saudi writer – US resident Jamal Khashoggi – who disappeared at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week.
Turkish officials claim the writer may have been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic mission. Saudi officials reject the claims as “baseless”.
Earlier, the court called two witnesses following tips from witness Levent Kalkan, who at the previous hearing had accused Brunson of aiding terror groups. The new witnesses did not confirm Mr Kalkan’s accusations. Another witness for the prosecution said she did not know Brunson.
Brunson again denied accusations that his church aided Kurdish militants, saying he had handed over a list of Syrian refugees whom the congregation had helped and adding that Turkish authorities would have identified any terrorists.
“We helped everyone, Kurds, Arabs, without showing any discrimination,” he said.
The pastor, who is originally from Black Mountain, North Carolina, was imprisoned for nearly two years – detained in October 2016 and formally arrested in December that year – before being placed under house arrest on July 25 for health reasons.