Zarrab trial to start despite Ankara’s allegations of a ‘plot’ against Turkey

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Reza Zarrab (L), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (C) and Mehmet Hakan Atilla

The trial of a Turkish-Iranian gold trader starts in New York this week, straining already tense Turkey-US relations, with Ankara claiming the prosecution is a plot against Turkey, Reuters reported on Sunday.

“The Zarrab case is a clear plot against Turkey, a political case and lacking any legal basis,” government spokesman Bekir Bozdağ said last week.

“The defendants in the case are under pressure and being forced to make statements against our country,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said.

Reza Zarrab, charged with conspiring to evade US sanctions on Iran, has not appeared in court for the past two months, prompting Yıldırım to claim he is cooperating with US authorities and has agreed to a plea bargain.

Zarrab and eight other people, including a former economy minister and three executives of Turkish state-owned Halkbank, have been charged with engaging in transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade US sanctions.

Accused of receiving tens of millions of dollars in bribes from the scheme is former economy minister Zafer Çağlayan, who the Turkish government says acted within Turkish and international law, but only Zarrab and Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla have been arrested by US authorities.

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims the case has been fabricated for political motives, with tensions between the two NATO ally countries affecting investor sentiment towards Turkey and contributing to the fall to record lows of the Turkish lira.

“You arrest the general manager of my bank when there are no crimes, try to use my citizen [Zarrab] as an informant, try him without having anything against him,” Erdoğan said in an October speech, in an apparent reference to US prosecutors.

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has said he sees the involvement in the case of US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who Erdoğan accuses of masterminding a failed coup in Turkey last year and also of driving an earlier legal case involving Zarrab.

Gülen and the movement he inspired deny any involvement in the failed coup.

In the 2013 case, Turkish prosecutors accused Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials of involvement in facilitating Iranian money transfers via gold smuggling. After details of the Turkish prosecution were leaked, several prosecutors were removed from the case and police investigators were reassigned. Erdoğan described the case as an attempt by Gülen’s supporters to undermine his government, and the investigation was later dropped.

Çavuşoğlu said the two legal cases were “exactly the same” and showed the extent to which Gülen had infiltrated American state institutions.

“Needless to say, those claims are ridiculous,” acting US Attorney Joon Kim said last week. The case has been handled by career prosecutors concerned only with US law, not Turkish politics, Kim said, adding: “They’re not Gülenists.”

Despite the myriad protestations and accusations from Turkey, jury selection is scheduled to take place on Monday, and the trial could start as early as Tuesday.

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