By Ezgi Erkoyun
ALIAGA, Turkey, Oct 12 (Reuters) - A Turkish court on Friday heard witnesses in the trial of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, a case at the heart of a diplomatic row between Washington and Ankara, after media reports said he could be released and returned to the United States.
The case against Brunson, an evangelical preacher from North Carolina who has lived in Turkey for more than 20 years, has led to U.S. sanctions and tariffs against Turkey and drawn condemnation from U.S. President Donald Trump.
The pastor is charged with links to Kurdish militants and supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the cleric blamed by Turkey for a failed coup attempt in 2016. He has denied the accusation - as has Gulen - and Washington has demanded his immediate release.
Brunson appeared in the courtroom in the western coastal town of Aliaga wearing a black suit, white shirt and red tie. His wife Norine looked on from the visitors' seating area as he listened to testimony from defence and prosecution witnesses.
"I do not understand how this is related to me," Brunson said after the judge questioned one of a series of witnesses heard before a lunch recess. He said the judge was asking the witness about incidents Brunson was not involved in.
Brunson's detention deepened a rift between NATO allies Washington and Ankara, who are also at odds over the Syrian war and Turkey's plan to buy missile defences from Russia. The row has also exacerbated a slide in the lira's value which has lost 40 percent against the dollar this year.
The lira firmed to 5.88 against the dollar on Friday, supported by expectations that he will be released.
An NBC media report on Thursday said a secret deal between Washington and Ankara had been reached to secure Brunson's release. Reuters could not independently verify the report and the U.S. State Department said it was not aware of such a deal.
Jailed or held under house arrest since October 2016, Brunson faces up to 35 years in jail if convicted. Last month the main prosecutor in his trial was replaced, a move his lawyer cautiously welcomed, saying it might be a sign of changing political will.
The case has also highlighted concerns over the independence of the Turkish judiciary under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has suggested that Brunson would be released in return for Gulen, who is based in the United States.
Despite pressure from the Trump administration, Erdogan has insisted that he has no sway over the judiciary and the courts will decide Brunson's fate.