US claims sanctions evader tried to advance Erdoğan’s interests

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

US prosecutors claim that Turkish Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, charged in the US with violating sanctions against Iran, invoked ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in order to advance the then-prime minister’s business interests, Reuters reported on Friday.

In a Monday filing with the US District Court in Manhattan, prosecutors said “the government anticipates that the evidence introduced at trial will show that Turkish government and banking officials were integral to the sanctions evasion scheme.” The filing detailed recorded phone conversations and documents that according to prosecutors suggest Zarrab was looking out for Erdoğan’s interests.

Erdoğan has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but on Oct. 24 the Turkish president said the arrest of Zarrab and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy general manager of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, was an operation deliberately targeting Turkey, adding: “They [US authorities] are driving him [Zarrab] into a corner, trying to make him an informer by saying, ‘If you mention those names, it [your prison term] will be this long, if you mention those names it will be that long’.”

“We are following this. We know how to set the world on fire when all those issues are done. We will tell all,” he said.

Erdoğan stated in September that he had told Washington that Turkey had never agreed to comply with its sanctions on Iran and called on the US to review the indictment. He also said US President Donald Trump had called him and agreed to follow the case more closely.

Prosecutors have accused the Iranian-born Zarrab and co-conspirators of handling hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015, in a scheme to evade US actions.

Nine people have been criminally charged, but only Zarrab and Atilla are in US custody. The trial is scheduled to start Nov. 27.

The allegations were made on the same day Atilla’s lawyers said Zarrab has “essentially not participated” in the case and that Atilla might be the only defendant appearing at trial, raising speculation that Zarrab could be preparing to plead guilty plea or cooperate, or that the charges against him may change.

Zarrab was the prime suspect in a major corruption investigation in Turkey that became public in December 2013 in which with others from the inner circle of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan for having paid Cabinet-level officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.

After Erdoğan cast the case as a coup attempt to overthrow his government orchestrated by his political enemies, several prosecutors were removed from the case, police were reassigned and the investigation against Zarrab was dropped.

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