17:58 GMT +319 January 2020
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    The conviction of American pastor Andrew Brunson and the subsequent announcement by the Turkish court this week that he was free to leave the country shed light on the "sham" trial that the religious official was subjected to, Gönül Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute's Center for Turkish Studies, told Sputnik.

    Brunson on Friday was convicted by Turkish officials on charges of aiding terrorist groups. Though he was sentenced to three years in prison, the courts ultimately freed him from custody after taking into account the time Brunson had already served in jail and on house arrest. Additional espionage charges he was initially accused of were dropped.

    The pastor was detained in October 2016 along with thousands of others who were swept up in a wave of arrests the came after the failed coup that occurred on July 15 of that year. Brunson was arrested over his alleged links to the movement of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed is responsible for the coup. Living in exile, Gülen presently resides in a Pennsylvania compound.

    ​In light of reports that Brunson's release was the result of a deal struck for the US to lift sanctions against Turkey, Tol told Radio Sputnik's Loud & Clear on Friday that the pastor's trial and release might have had more to do with the country's questionable rule of law.

    "The way and the manner in which the hearing was handled proved that this was a sham trial, because throughout the entire trial, the court heavily relied on secret witnesses," Tol told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou. "And at the last minute, those secret witnesses retracted their testimonies against Brunson."

    "The takeaway is that it just shows the sorry state of the rule of law in Turkey and how President Erdoğan holds Western citizens as hostages," she added, stressing that Brunson's case revealed that "playing hardball" with Erdoğan does ultimately pay off.

    US officials spent months holding talks with Turkish figures in an attempt to free Brunson from his detainment. Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump went as far as telling Bloomberg News in August that he was "very disappointed" in Erdoğan.

    The latest development on Brunson's whereabouts suggest that he has already departed from Turkey, a place he called home for several years. In a statement released after Brunson was allowed to go on his way, the pastor offered his thanks, saying, "he suffered greatly but [his family was] very appreciative to a lot of people."

    In related Turkish news, there's the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Since news broke on the matter, reports surfaced that the Turkish government has audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi was killed by the consulate's security detail.

    According to Tol, the matter surrounding Khashoggi's disappearance will ultimately determine just how US-Turkish relations will go if officials decide to release the footage, since Riyadh and Washington are close partners.

    "All eyes are on [Erdoğan] now, so he must make a decision," she told Becker. "Will he disclose information he says he has, or will he look the other way?"

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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