Erdogan Says He Has to Abide by Court Ruling on U.S. Pastor

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he can’t interfere with the trial of an American pastor that has severely strained ties with Washington, as expectations ran high that Andrew Brunson will be released at Friday’s hearing.

Erdogan last week had accused the U.S. of using Brunson as a pretext to impose sanctions on his country, while leaving the door open for a reconciliation with the Trump administration. The evangelical pastor has been held for more than two years over his alleged involvement in a terrorist plot to destabilize Turkey.

Erdogan said he wasn’t in a position to interfere with the judiciary as the head of a state of law, Hurriyet newspaper reported on Thursday.

“I’ll have to abide by whichever decision the judiciary makes,” Hurriyet quoted him as saying on a flight home from Hungary earlier this week. “Those who are subject to it also must obey the judiciary decision.”

Brunson will appear before a lower court near the western city of Izmir. The court’s verdict won’t be final and the pastor can appeal its decision. Separately, the country’s constitutional court is also evaluating a demand by Brunson’s lawyer for his client’s release.

Freedom for the pastor, who recently was moved from a prison to house arrest and denies wrongdoing, could ease the serious diplomatic feud between the NATO allies and bring respite to the battered lira. It would also reduce chances of another interest-rate hike a month after the benchmark was hoisted to 24 percent.

Erdogan accuses the U.S. of trying to meddle in its judicial procedures and rejects suspicions Ankara is holding on to Brunson as a bargaining chip to win the extradition of two Turks: Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher it accuses of instigating a botched coup in 2016, and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the Halkbank executive sentenced to prison in the U.S. for violating Iran sanctions.

Pro-government Star newspaper said on Thursday that freeing Brunson doesn’t make sense without securing Atilla’s release from the U.S., and that barring that, the pastor should be convicted of spying and imprisoned.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.