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22nd of October 2018

Economy



Turkish judge set to rule on detained US pastor

A Turkish judge is set to rule on Friday on whether to free a US pastor in a case that has poisoned relations between Washington and Ankara, undermined the lira and rattled emerging markets.

The Trump administration has expressed confidence in recent days that Andrew Brunson would soon be released from house arrest, comments that have helped the lira rally against the dollar after a months-long slump.

The hearing began on Friday with Mr Brunson, an evangelical preacher, facing a panel of three judges alone in a pen designed for hundreds of defendants in a cavernous courtroom, as his wife Norine and US diplomats looked on.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, said this week: “I am very hopeful that before too long Pastor Brunson . . . will be able to return to the United States.”

While Turkish authorities accuse Mr Brunson of espionage, Washington says the charges are politically driven and has imposed sanctions on two Turkish ministers in an unprecedented rift between the Nato allies.

The 50-year-old pastor was arrested two years ago and accused of links to Kurdish militants and followers of Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric whom Turkey blames for masterminding an abortive 2016 coup.

Mr Brunson has called the charges “slander”. In the courtroom in the town of Aliaga, an hour-and-a-half drive from his home in the Aegean port city of Izmir, Mr Brunson denied knowing any members of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK).

“I completely reject the PKK,” he said in fluent Turkish. He was not immediately questioned about any ties with the Gulen movement.

Before the hearing resumed, he and his wife exchanged a minutes-long look across the hall, both of their hands resting on their hearts.

Jeff Hovenier, the US embassy’s chargé d’affaires, who is Washington’s top diplomat in Turkey until a new ambassador is confirmed, was at the hearing,

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the past publicly suggested exchanging Mr Brunson for Mr Gulen.

More recently, the Turkish president has accused the US of meddling in Turkey’s judicial affairs and engaging in “economic war”. But on Thursday, Turkish newspapers quoted him as telling reporters that he had no say over matters before the courts.

“I am the president of a democratic Turkey with rule of law, so therefore I am obliged to comply with whatever decision the judiciary takes, as are the other interlocutors in the matter,” Mr Erdogan said.

The rift between Turkey and Washington has aggravated the lira’s decline. Despite rallying as much as 2.5 per cent against the dollar to TL5.92 on Thursday, on the back of reports of a US-Turkish deal, the lira is 36 per cent down against the US currency this year.

The fall has contributed to more general EM woes, as developing economies suffer from the strong dollar. The lira is the world’s second-worst performing major EM currency after the Argentine peso.

The currency was slightly weaker on Friday morning as the hearing began, at TL5.96 to the dollar.

Mr Brunson’s lawyer, Ismail Cem Halavurt, said on Thursday he was unaware of any deal between the two governments that would allow Mr Brunson to go free, adding that reports of any such arrangement could make his client’s situation more difficult by placing pressure on the court.

“From a legal perspective, he should have been released long ago. The whole matter has been so politicised, and these political tensions are cause for concern,” Mr Halavurt said.

He said he would renew his request for the court to end Mr Brunson’s house arrest and the judicial controls that require him to remain in Turkey and that the decision on his petition would come at the end of Friday’s hearing.

US officials would not confirm ahead of the hearing that any deal had been reached.

Washington and Ankara are acutely aware that previous negotiations before a court hearing in July failed to resolve the impasse.

While US officials had hoped on that occasion that Mr Brunson and several other US staff detained by Turkish authorities would be released, the pastor was instead moved to house arrest and barred from returning to the US. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Ankara in the following days.

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Washington subsequently increased tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium and threatened further action in the wake of the deal’s collapse.

“The broad parameters of the deal haven’t changed that much but people are less optimistic than last time, not because the deal isn’t there but because last time people got their hopes up so high only for it all to come crashing down,” said a person briefed on the matter.

US officials have previously been open to provide support to help Turkey address its economic problems once Mr Brunson is released. But they have been less keen to accommodate Ankara’s demands on avoiding fines over Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank accused of violating US sanctions on Iran.

“The wild card in here is the Halkbank fine,” the person said. US officials have told Turkish authorities they cannot intervene to stop any independent US legal action against the bank.

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