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The trial of an American pastor at the heart of a diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the United States resumed Friday in Turkey, with observers waiting to see if authorities will release him amid threats of further U.S. sanctions.
On Thursday, NBC News learned that the White House expects North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson to be released by the Turkish government and returned to the U.S. in the coming days, two years after he was detained, according to two senior administration officials and another person briefed on the matter.
Under an agreement senior Trump administration officials recently reached with Turkey, Brunson is supposed to be released after certain charges against him are dropped during the scheduled hearing. The details of the deal are unclear, but those familiar with the discussions said it includes a commitment by the U.S. to ease economic pressure on Turkey.
Trump announced economic sanctions against Turkey in August after talks with Ankara failed to result in Brunson’s release. He also has publicly called for Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release the pastor.
There was heavy security as Brunson arrived in a convoy of vehicles before daybreak for Friday’s hearing. He faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted.
Outside the prison complex near the coastal city of Izmir where Brunson’s hearing is being held, an evangelical pastor from New York City, William Devlin, told reporters he hopes the American will be released today.
“That’s what we’re praying for,” Devlin said. “We’ve mobilized hundreds of thousands of people, not just in the United States but around the world to pray for Pastor Brunson’s release. So we’re hoping today that all of our prayers, of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, have been answered… We’re hoping by the end of the business today that he’s going to walk a free man.”
Brunson, 50, who has lived in Turkey for more than two decades, rejects the charges and strongly maintains his innocence. He is one of thousands caught up in a widespread government crackdown that followed a failed coup against the Turkish government in July 2016.
Prosecutors accuse Brunson of committing crimes on behalf of terror groups, linking him to outlawed Kurdish militants and a network led by a U.S.-based Turkish cleric who is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt. The U.S. maintains he is being held unjustly and has repeatedly called for his release.