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Trump sought Israel's help to free American pastor in Turkey, officials say

US President Donald Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assist in the release of an American pas...

Posted: Jul 27, 2018 5:06 PM
Updated: Jul 27, 2018 5:06 PM

US President Donald Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assist in the release of an American pastor detained in Turkey, Israeli and US officials told CNN on Friday.

The Israeli official would not divulge details of their conversation, or when the request took place, but the two leaders spoke on the phone on July 14, just days after Trump met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Brussels.

A senior US official told CNN that in exchange for Turkey's release of Andrew Brunson -- who has been detained in Turkey since October 2016 -- Israel agreed to release Ebru Ozkan, a 27-year-old Turkish woman held in Israel on suspicion of aiding Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza and has been designated a terrorist organization by the US and Israel.

The deal -- the details of which were first reported by the Washington Post -- was agreed to by Trump and Erdogan at the NATO summit, the US official said.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Ozkan was released from prison between July 11 and 12, a lawyer for Ozkan told CNN. She was able to leave Israel for Turkey on July 15, one day after Trump spoke with Netanyahu.

In an extremely unusual move, Israeli prosecutors permitted Ozkan, who faces charges related to terrorism, to leave the country two weeks before her trial, effectively freezing the case against her. But the charges against her were not dropped.

Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian pastor from North Carolina, was arrested in 2016 during a government crackdown that followed an attempted coup.

In March, he was formally charged with espionage and having links to terrorist organizations. If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in prison. He maintains his innocence.

On July 18 -- three days after Ozkan flew back to Turkey -- a Turkish court rejected an appeal by Brunson's lawyers to have him freed.

Then, on Wednesday, Brunson was released to house arrest and ordered to wear an electronic monitoring device.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have had multiple conversations with Turkish officials regarding Brunson in recent weeks, an administration official told CNN.

But those conversations have thus far failed to secure Brunson's freedom, and on Thursday, Trump threatened Turkey with retaliation.

Trump calls for Brunson's immediate release

"The United States will impose large sanctions on Turkey for their long time detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson, a great Christian, family man and wonderful human being," Trump tweeted.

"He is suffering greatly," the President added. "This innocent man of faith should be released immediately!"

Pence echoed Trump's stance during remarks at the State Department on Thursday.

"If Turkey does not take immediate action to free this man of faith and send him home to America, the United States will impose significant sanctions on Turkey until Pastor Andrew Brunson is free," Pence said. "While he is out of jail he is still not free."

In a phone call with his Turkish counterpart Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo "underscored that it is well past time for this innocent pastor" to come home, his spokeswoman said.

Erdogan's spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said that the "threatening language" from the US was "unacceptable."

A senior Turkish official denied there was any connection between the release of Ozkan and the case of Brunson, describing the claims as "completely baseless."

Erdogan: Brunson is 'not a hostage'

Since his election, Trump has raised the matter of Brunson's detention with Erdogan several times, and called publicly for his release.

Trump and Erdogan spoke specifically about the issue during a mid-June call, according to the administration official. The White House has not issued a readout of that conversation.

Erdogan has previously suggested that Brunson could be swapped for Fethullah Gulen, the US-based cleric whom the Turkish government blames for the failed coup in 2016. Gulen denies any involvement.

But in an interview with CNN's Becky Anderson in May, he said that Brunson was "not a hostage" and that his case should be left to the Turkish judiciary. He also denied that the cases of the two men were comparable.

"There is the FETO terrorist organization and the leader is in the United States since 1999," he said, referring to Gulen's organization. "And he's being harbored there. And he's not a convict. He's not even being detained. And we demand his extradition, and he's not being extradited to us."

"But there is a Pastor Brunson here, who is being currently prosecuted and he's allegedly associated with terrorist organizations. And you're asking for him?"

"This is not hostage diplomacy," he said. "It's not about that at all."

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