Turkey Sought To Bury Story On Iran Sanctions Buster

A Turkish journalist has revealed that senior Turkish officials had worked hard to bury a story that his newspaper was working on about Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, illustrating a longstanding interest of the Turkish government in protecting him.

Exiled Turkish journalist Adem Yavuz Arslan recalled on Wednesday how Turkish government officials put pressure on him to kill the story that his now-defunct newspaper, Bugun, had been working on for so long. The story was to reveal Mr. Zarrab’s efforts to bypass U.S.-led sanctions on Iran and how he used a network of Turkish businessmen and Turkish officials to bust the sanctions.

Mr. Arslan wrote on tr724.com on Wednesday that high-level government officials reached out to him back in November 2013, just weeks before twin corruption investigations that targeted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and people in his inner circle, after they learned that a reporter with Bugun newspaper had been inquiring about Mr. Zarrab.

The Turkish corruption probes came to surface again when FBI arrested Mr. Zarrab in Miami on March 19, 2016, based on evidence largely in line with Turkish police findings.

Huseyin Celik, then Deputy Chairman of Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), called Mr. Arslan in Nov. 2013 and requested a private meeting to convey him the message that “higher ups” were “extremely disturbed” by the reporter’s digging up on Mr. Zarrab. Mr. Arslan, then the newspaper’s Ankara bureau chief, was unaware of the investigative piece by the reporter in Istanbul. He later told Mr. Celik that he learned the story was based on “solid data.”

Mr. Celik, formerly tasked with media relations for the AKP government, told Mr. Arslan that ministers Egemen Bagis, Zafer Caglayan, Erdogan Bayraktar and Muammer Guler called him to bring up their concerns about the topic. All of these figures have later been implicated by Turkish police’s investigation involving Mr. Zarrab’s corrupt practices including bribes to government officials.

“Frankly, back then I had no idea what a big fish we caught or how big a wall we hit. Around the same dates those ministers also called me, our editor-in-chief Erhan Basyurt and publisher Akin Ipek. The story wasn’t even published, but AKP government was all over us,” Mr. Arslan wrote in his article.

Before Bugun newspaper was able to completely verify and finalize the story, Turkish police launched the investigation into the Zarrab-centered corruption scheme on Dec. 17, 2013.

The corruption scandal in 2013 was one of the biggest tests Mr. Erdogan faced since he came to power a decade ago. Few months after Mr. Zarrab, his business associates and government officials he bribed were arrested, the Turkish government dismissed prosecutors supervising the case and replaced them with loyalist ones. The new prosecutors dropped all charges and released the suspects, including Mr. Zarrab.

Most prosecutors who pressed charges against Mr. Zarrab and even police officials who carried out the operation to detain him were later imprisoned on charges of “overthrowing the elected government through exploiting judiciary.” Bugun newspaper was shut down and Mr. Arslan is facing a slew of charges.

When FBI arrested Mr. Zarrab in the U.S., President Erdogan initially publically distanced himself from the case. On his way to the U.S. in March 2016 he said: “This is not a topic that concerns our nation. If there is something, Mr. Zarrab’s lawyers would give the relevant response.”

However, the government of Mr. Erdogan has later injected itself into the legal process in the U.S., tasked envoys to discuss Mr. Zarrab’s case with their counterparts in the U.S. administration and boosted lobbying efforts that included enlisting former White House national security adviser Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a campaign surrogate for President Donald J. Trump, joined Mr. Zarrab’s defense team and had a private meeting with Mr. Erdogan in Turkey, according to a recent report by The New York Times.

Mr. Zarrab’s lead lawyer Benjamin Brafman’s recent court filing included affidavits from Mr. Giuliani and his colleague Michael Mukasey. They reveal efforts to foster a resolution that would be favorable for Mr. Zarrab as “part of some agreement between the United States and Turkey that will promote the national security interests of the United States.”

It is not clear whether President Trump’s decision to fire Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who was in charge of the Zarrab case among others, have anything to do with such political negotiation efforts.

On Twitter, Mr. Bharara said: “One just hopes that the rule of law, and its independent enforcement, still matters in the United States and at the Department of Justice.”

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