The Reza Zarrab Case In US, Erdogan’s Paranoia And Turkish Media’s Denial Narrative – OpEd


While the gold trader Reza Zarrab’s case is being closely observed in the international media, the government-controlled Turkish media either skip the story or castigate it as yet another ‘Western conspiracy’ against the ‘Islamic’ Turkey

Aakar Patel, the executive director of Amnesty India, recently visited Istanbul to attend the trial of his Turkish colleagues. But he returned amazed at the sorry state of affairs in Turkey. He wonders as to how little regard the Turkish court pays to the arguments presented. “I have been a court reporter for many years and have not seen such blatant suppression of those who are fighting for human rights, suppression of freedom of expression, and linking it to terrorism….”, he wrote.

This is the grim situation of judiciary in Turkey today. But worse is the plight of the Turkish media due to the increasing curtail on the press freedom. After the blackout ban on the independent media outlets and free news agencies in the beginning of March 2016, the government’s monopoly over media is well-established now. It can be gauged in the fresh case of Reza Zarrab— the Turkish-Iranian gold trader who is being closely watched in the international media.

“It’s a case that has captivated Turkey and rattled Ankara: Reza Zarrab has become the star witness in a New York trial over alleged subversion of US economic sanctions against Iran, implicating a former Turkish minister and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, NDTV reports.

Zarrab was leading a lavish life, with two villas on the shores of the Bosphorus worth around $40m and gifts of million-dollar paintings for his pop-star wife. His holdings include a private jet, around 20 properties, as well as luxurious cars and boats, as a BBC News report tells us.

Interestingly, Zarrab has maintained close ties with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But his case has implicated the president as he has testified to a US district court that Erdogan personally approved of his sanction-breaking deals with Iran.

In front of dozens of engrossed Turkish journalists, Zarrab affirmed that Erdogan, then prime minister, had given “instructions” that two other public banks would participate in the multi-billion dollar gold-for-oil scheme. He took the stand in the Manhattan courtroom that he paid ‘jaw-dropping bribes to a government minister to grease the wheels of a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran’. He also testified that he was allowed to carry out the plan through Halkbank only after agreeing to split profits on a 50-50 basis with Zafer Caglayan, the then Turkish minister of the economy. Caglayan ended up collecting as much as 50 million euros ($59 million), about $7 million and almost 2.5 million Turkish lira ($632,000), Zarrab revealed.

But Erdogan warns the Turkish people not to pay heed to the testimony of the Iranian-Turkish gold dealer. Tellingly, Raza Zarrab, who is presently standing trial on grounds of bypassing U.S. sanctions on Iran, was a key defendant in an Iranian sanction-busting case. But surprisingly, Zarrab has now become the most important witness in the case. He is now cooperating with the American authorities and thus turning into the star witness against a Turkish banking executive, Mehmet Hakan Atilla. Clearly, Zarrab’s testimony will further implicate not only the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but also the prominent figures in both Turkey and the US, revealing their illicit dealings and ‘corruptions’. Since Zarrab’s testimony is going to besmirch Erdogan’s international and domestic reputation, that too ahead of Turkey’s 2019 presidential elections, he has bashed the trial, casting it as a ‘U.S. plot against Turkey’.

Ironically, the government-controlled media outlets in Turkey—both print and electronic, English and Turkish— are trying to turn a blind eye to the Zarrab case or are promoting a narrative of denial painting it as yet another ‘Western lie’ spread with the help of Erdogan’s arch-rival, M. Fethullah Gulen—the Turkish Sufi scholar living in self-exile in the US.

After the seizure of the free press and massive purge of the independent journalists in Turkey, there is no dearth of the state-controlled media outlets in the country promulgating the sold-out news and biased opinions. In place of an objective probe into the case of Reza Zarrab, the Turkish media outlets are buying the ‘majoritarian line’. They are spreading plane lies about an ex-MP of the main opposition party in Turkey—Republican People’s Party (CHP). One such lie goes like this: A Harvard-trained anthropologist, Aykan Erdemir, who is currently a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, has prepared fake documents to damage the Turkish President’s reputation in the US at the behest of Fethullah Gulen and the so-called terror outfit, FETO. However, Erdemir has denied all such allegations labelled by the Turkish authorities which are now on the lookout for his arrest.

The pro-government newspapers in Turkey like Daily Sabah and Bozdag have dubbed the trial as a ‘political move’ against Ankara. “The direct links between the judge overseeing the Zarrab case and the Gülenist terror group revealed during the trial raised questions whether the group is attempting to exploit the trial in order to attack Turkey and its democratically elected government”, Daily Sabah wrote on November 29.

Amberin Zaman who was a regular liberal columnist for the independent newspapers like Taraf and Haberturk—before switching to the Turkish online news portal Diken—has also covered this development in Turkey for the leading international publications. She analyses that the Turkish government enjoys almost full control over the media and, thus, its ruthless suppression of all of its critics makes it unlikely that the allegations of sleaze will make much of a dent.

Another Turkey expert at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Lisel Hintz tells Al-Monitor (a multilingual website which reports on the Middle East through both original and translated content): “The rally-round-the-flag tactic is evident, with anti-Western rhetoric that has been steadily increasing around a number of issues to claim the United States is threatened by a strong Muslim power and seeks to prevent Turkey’s rise.”

“In the end, it is likely AKP supporters won’t care much about corruption even if they believe the charges,” Hintz said. She warned, however, “Any potential ramifications from bank fines, currency rates, withdrawal of foreign direct investment, etc. may, however, threaten support from those who value the tangible benefits under AKP rule.”

The US-Turkey ties have been strained since the last year’s failed coup attempt which Erdogan blamed on Fethullah Gulen but the US refused to extradite the self-exiled Islamic scholar. Now, what worries the Turkish president is that Zarrab’s evidence and testimony could give credibility to the long-dismissed charges against the current ‘corrupt’ Turkish regime. In addition, the trial could lead to sanctions on the Turkish banks, possibly weakening an already unstable Turkish economy, while paving the way for further indictments on Turkish officials.

More troublesome for Turkey is the EU anti-terror chief’s latest assertion that ‘Gülen network is not a terrorist organization’. The European counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove stated on Thursday that the EU is not “likely to change its position” on Gülen’s network. He said the EU would need “substantive” evidence to change its mind on the network of the Sufi scholar Turkish President blames for masterminding a coup against his government last year. This is important to note.

But Turkey seems more emboldened in its autocratic persecutions against its supposed adversary in every such incident— the Hizmet or Gülen movement. The popular pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak has published an article penned by Erdoğan’s former speechwriter and current Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy Aydın Ünal on November 29, 2017. He wrote that the witch hunt against the alleged supporters of Gülen in Turkey will eventually become severe after the critical fallout of Reza Zarrab’s case against Erdoğan. Ünal’s column in the Turkish language reveals that more than 250,000 sympathisers of Gülen along with their family members numbering about 1 million are still based in Turkey. He avers that the use of the Zarrab case as a political offense against Turkey will further pressurise the followers of Fethullah Gülen in Turkey and abroad.

*Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a scholar of classical Islamic studies, cultural analyst and researcher in media and communication studies. Reach him at [email protected]

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