Jailed U.S. Pastor Wanted to Create a Christian Kurdish State in Turkey, Secret Witness Claims

American pastor Andrew Brunson worked with members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to establish an independent Christian Kurdish state in Turkey, an anonymous witness allegedly told a Turkish court on Monday.

Brunson is a 50-year-old Christian missionary who was arrested in Turkey in 2016 when the government of strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched a crackdown against his political opponents in the wake of a failed coup. Thousands of civil servants, politicians, journalists and others have been fired or arrested over the past several years for allegedly working with Erdogan's enemy Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric based in Pennsylvania.

Turkey has accused Brunson—who for decades ran a church in Izmir, Turkey—of collaborating with Gulen's network and spying for the PKK, a Kurdish political party that is outlawed in Turkey. He could be jailed for 35 years if he is found guilty.

Some experts have suggested that Brunson is being used as a bargaining chip so that Turkey can pressure the U.S. to extradite Gulen, something both the Obama and Trump administrations have resisted. Anonymous witnesses are often used in Turkey in high-profile cases like that of Brunson and are frequently utilized to bolster a case when the government wants a guilty verdict, experts said.

"Given the significance that Erdogan has given the case and the degree to which the Turkish court system has been compromised since the 2016 coup attempt, it's hard to imagine a judge acting in a way that defies the government's own determination on Brunson's guilt," Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkey at the Naval Postgraduate School, told Newsweek.

"Secret witnesses have long been common in high-profile political trials. Unlike the U.S. system, the laws governing admissibility of evidence are weak at best. Prosecutors and judges have a lot of leeway in determining what counts as certifiable evidence," Gingeras added.

Anonymous witnesses were also used in the famous Ergenekon cases, in which a court handed 17 life sentences to prominent academics, journalists, politicians and members of the military between 2008 and 2013. In those cases, anonymous witnesses told the judge that members of the Ergenekon militant organization had attempted to assassinate Erdogan by loading a car with explosives.

Nevertheless, some analysts said it is possible Erdogan will ultimately choose to let Brunson go free for more practical purposes.

"Amid the deep economic troubles Turkey finds itself in these days, the release of Brunson could be an important signal to Western investors and global markets, as it makes U.S. sanctions more unlikely," Magdalena Kirchner, a fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center, told Newsweek.

"On the other hand, his case and how pro-government media is framing it feeds into the narrative of Turkey's current problems being created by external powers, undermining the country with a network of spies and traitors, which is widespread among nationalist and nativist segments of the electorate and frequently invoked by the president himself," Kirchner noted.

Supporters of Ergenekon, a nationalist-secularist network suspected by the current Turkish government of having a broad plan to plunge Turkey into political chaos, using assassinations of prominent people to pave the way for a coup, march with Turkish flags as they take part in demonstration against the incarcerations and trials of their relatives, at a small camp outside the court building in Silivri, near Istanbul, on September 9, 2011. Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has spoken out on several occasions about Brunson's case and called on Turkey to release the pastor and let him go home to his family. In court, Brunson has maintained his innocence and insisted that he never allowed politics in his church.

"I haven't done anything against Turkey. On the contrary, I love Turkey. I have been praying for Turkey for 25 years," he told the judge when his hearing began last month.

The State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom are monitoring the case, which could further hurt the already fragile relationship between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally.

"Although [Foreign Minister] Mevlüt Çavuşoglu had deferred responsibility to the courts and denied that the case was of political nature, the government will also have to factor in the upcoming meeting of the minister with his new U.S. counterpart, Mike Pompeo, in Washington, where the future of bilateral security cooperation will be on the agenda," Kirchner told Newsweek.