Report: US asked Israel to free terror suspect in deal for pastor held in Turkey
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Report: US asked Israel to free terror suspect in deal for pastor held in Turkey

Trump threatens sanctions after Erdogan releases Andrew Brunson to house arrest after reneging on reported deal; Turkish citizen was held on suspicion of smuggling for Hamas

This file photo taken on September 21, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump reaching to shake Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York City. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)
This file photo taken on September 21, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump reaching to shake Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's hand before a meeting at the Palace Hotel during the 72nd United Nations General Assembly in New York City. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

Israel released a Turkish citizen held for smuggling funds to Hamas as part of a deal between Washington and Istanbul to free an American pastor detained in Turkey for the past 18 months, according to a Thursday report.

US President Donald Trump asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to release Ebru Ozkan as part of a deal he had agreed with Turkey to gain the release of Andrew Brunson, reported the Washington Post.

Hebrew-language media reported on Friday that Israel officials confirmed Trump called Netanyahu asking him to release Ozkan.

The Post said the deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was personally sealed by Trump and that in exchange for Ozkan’s release, Turkey would free Brunson.

US pastor Andrew Craig Brunson escorted by Turkish plain clothes police officers arrives at his house on July 25, 2018 in Izmir. (AFP PHOTO)

However, on Wednesday, rather than free the jailed pastor, a Turkish court ordered him released to house arrest. On Thursday, after a phone call with Erdogan which the Post described as “rancorous,” Trump threatened to impose sanctions on the NATO ally.

According to the report, Trump phoned Netanyahu from Scotland on July 14 to discuss “security and diplomatic issues arising from regional developments, chiefmost among them, of course, Syria and Iran.”

However, during the conversation he also asked the prime minister to free Ozkan, held by Israel for allegedly transferring money to Hamas operatives last month.

On July 15 Ozkan was released and sent back to Turkey.

Following her release Ozkan was met by reporters as she landed in Istanbul, and specifically thanked Erdogan for securing her freedom, according to the Turkish outlet Daily Sabah. After thanking the president she added, “He was kind enough to be very interested in my case.”

Ebru Özkan, a Turkish woman arrested in Israel on suspicion of aiding Hamas. (Courtesy)

The indictment against Ozkan accused her of smuggling objects, including perfume and a phone charger, as well as $500 into Israel and then the West Bank in the service of members of the Hamas terror group. She was charged on four separate counts.

Brunson served as pastor of Izmir Resurrection Church, a small Protestant congregation, and has lived in Turkey for 23 years. He was detained by Turkish forces in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup, The indictment against him contends he worked to convert Kurds to Christianity in order to sow discord in Turkey.

On July 18 a Turkish court rejected appeals to free Brunson, setting the next hearing for October.

Trump lambasted the move on Twitter, saying Brunson was “being persecuted in Turkey for no reason.”

Then on Wednesday the court decided to release the pastor to house arrest. The decision was welcomed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though he warned it wasn’t enough.

But shortly afterwards, first Vice President Mike Pence, and then Trump, threatened sanctions against Turkey if Brunson wasn’t freed, an apparent response to what they saw as a violation of the deal.

Trump prides himself on being a deal-maker, and often speaks of his skills as a negotiator.

There was no further comment from Jerusalem and no official word from Washington.

Erdogan had previously linked Brunson’s return to the US to the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey’s government holds responsible for a failed military coup.

Gulen, who denies orchestrating the coup attempt, lives in Pennsylvania. Turkish requests for his arrest and extradition have not been granted.

More than 77,000 people were arrested across Turkey after the government declared a state of emergency following the failed coup. The crackdown has targeted journalists, activists, and opposition figures.

Brunson rejected evidence against him during a recent hearing, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

“I believe in and support Turkey’s territorial integrity,” he told the court. “I forgive those who lie and bear false witness against me.”

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