(CN) – Amid reports of White House pressure to expel the Turkish president’s top foe Fethullah Gulen, experts noted that evidence in a potential extradition case against the cleric would be thin.
“If the report is true, I think it is extremely disturbing on a number of levels,” Johns Hopkins University professor Lisel Hintz said in a phone interview.
The Turkey scholar referred to Thursday's NBC News bombshell reporting the Trump administration had been leaning on the Department of Justice to remove Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based green card holder whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames for a July 2016 coup attempt.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, noted that the Turkish government indictments linking Gulen to that aborted putsch boil down to a pair of secret witnesses code-named “Hat” and “Raven.”
“The specific evidence linking Gulen to the coup appears to come in the form of two anonymous witnesses, who claim to have been part of a meeting where Gulen gave instructions over the phone,” Danforth said in a phone interview.
The Turkish government also deployed secret witnesses against U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, who spent roughly two years inside an Istanbul prison before the anonymous accusers mysteriously recanted prior to a rapprochement between Trump and Erdogan’s governments.
“As people following the Brunson case saw, there have been a number of situations where these anonymous witnesses have given absurd statements and retracted them when the political climate changed,” Danforth noted.
Brunson’s case has been cited as a signature example of what experts call Turkey’s "hostage diplomacy."
“Turkey has been engaged in hostage diplomacy with a number of countries, not just the U.S., for a while,” Hintz said. “We know this is the case with Germany, with the Netherlands, possibly with Greece.”
In 2017, Erdogan proposed swapping Brunson for Gulen in a televised speech.
“They say ‘give us the pastor,’” Erdogan said at the time. “You have a preacher there. Give him to us, and we will try and give him back.”
But the United States has long held that there is no basis to do so.
“Until now, the U.S. has fallen back, rightly so, on rule of law – and saying, 'We cannot really extradite someone just because you demand them,'” Hintz said. “The evidence that the U.S. has been presented in terms of the extradition case has been found wanting.”
Danforth noted that the Obama administration tried to help the Turks in their investigation.
“Under Obama, the Department of Justice actually sent I believe two delegations to Turkey to try to work with the Turkish Ministry of Justice to better prepare or present this evidence in a way that might pass muster in U.S. courts,” he said.
Both experts said that the only evidence that emerged linked Gulen’s followers with the coup, but not the cleric himself.
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Quoting four senior U.S. officials, the NBC article suggested that the Trump administration hopes turning Gulen over would placate Turkey so it wouldn’t implicate Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi's killing.