Erdoğan’s answer to Zarrab question is ‘Gülen’
Before Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan took off for his official trip to the U.S. on March 29, a reporter asked what he thought about the trial of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab (or Rıza Sarraf, according to his Turkish passport).
“The Zarrab case doesn’t concern Turkey. Mr. Zarrab’s lawyers will make his defense,” Erdoğan said.
Zarrab was the focus of a major corruption probe opened on Dec. 17, 2013 allegedly involving four ex-ministers of the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government in relation to gold-for-oil trade with internationally sanctioned Iran. Then Prime Minister Erdoğan denounced that probe and another that broke on Dec. 25, 2013, saying it was a conspiracy against his government plotted by his former close ally Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Islamist ideologue.
The cases against suspects including Zarrab were eventually dropped and all suspects were released. Today, the prosecutors and judges who opened those investigations are themselves being prosecuted or are banned from courts, accused of acting on behalf of what Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu called the “Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ)/Parallel State Structure (PDY).”
Speaking before flying to the U.S., Erdoğan alluded to the Gülen movement in relation to the Zarrab case.
“We don’t know whether the case involves money laundering. But as you now the parallel state structure [meaning Gülenists] has plenty of educational institutions in the U.S., including charter schools. These schools were involved in many financial improprieties. [U.S. prosecutors] should first take steps on this issue. Unfortunately, officials in the U.S., which is our friend, have not shown the slightest sensitivity on this,” he said.
Since the December 2013 graft probe was opened, Erdoğan has been asking the U.S. administration to open an investigation into the Pennsylvania-based Gülen and his sympathizers there and send him back to Turkey.
In addition, a Turkish court denounced the network as an “organization of terror” and a number of companies owned by investors said to be close to Gülen were seized and trustees were appointed to their administrations. These companies included major pro-Gülen media outlets such as the newspapers Zaman, Today’s Zaman and Bugün, and TV stations like Samanyolu and Kanaltürk. Some of them have been closed down while the others have adopted a strongly pro-government line.
Erdoğan is scheduled to meet U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on March 31 and possibly with President Barack Obama during the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit. Among security topics such as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), issues of press freedom might also come up during the talks.
The controversial ongoing trial of two journalists in Turkey, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül of daily Cumhuriyet, has received close international attention in recent weeks. Despite a ruling by the Constitutional Court, which was the basis of the pre-trial release of Dündar and Gül, Erdoğan insists that they committed “espionage” by reporting court documents on the transfer of military material into civil war-hit Syria. He also reacted harshly against Western diplomats’ interest in the first hearing of the trial on March 25.
The next hearing is scheduled to take place on April 1, the second day of the summit in Washington DC, (with a time difference from Turkey of seven hours). It is not yet clear whether Erdoğan will raise the situation of Gülen during his talks in the U.S. - neither is it clear at this stage that he will even meet President Obama on the trip.