The Zarrab case

The Zarrab case

There is a celebratory mood in anti-government circles in Turkey over the arrest in the U.S. of Reza Zarrab, the Turkish businessman of Iranian origin, who is reportedly also a citizen of Iran and Azerbaijan. He is charged with conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions and transferring hundreds of millions of dollars to the Iranian administration headed by then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

His alleged partner in Iran, Babak Zanjani, received the death penalty recently for defrauding the Iranian government of hundreds of millions of dollars. Zarrab was arrested in December 2013 in Turkey on corruption charges, which also implicated four key Justice and Development Party (AKP) ministers.

The charges against Zarrab were later dropped because the prosecutors pursuing the case were accused by the government of being from the Gülen group and trying to carry out a political coup in Turkey. 

The proper thing in any country with a respectable legal system is to assume the innocence of those charged until proven guilty. But the hasty manner in which the prosecutors involved in this case were dismissed, and the manner in which the case against Zarrab was dropped while the allegations against the former ministers was swept under the carpet, merely heightened public suspicions.

Zarrab insists he is innocent, but rather than opting to have his name cleared in court he preferred to take advantage of the cover provided by the government and what many believe is a co-opted judiciary. He went on to receive many accolades and awards from the AKP government honoring him for services rendered. 

Despite the fact that he enjoyed such protection, the notoriety attached to his name has never left.

Comments by readers under news articles about his arrest in daily Hürriyet, for example, reflect the public joy over his arrest, with the most hits being received by readers thanking the U.S. authorities for showing Turkey how corruption should be handled.

There are also those who believe that the death penalty given to Zanjani in Iran is also message to Turkey from Iran under President Hassan Rouhani, which says: “This is how we handle corruption.” 

Needless to say, the mood in the pro-government media regarding Zarrab’s arrest is lukewarm to say the least. It is trying to underplay the story and arguing that the opposition media is blowing the story out of proportion for political reasons. There are even claims that U.S. attorney Preet Bharara - who opened the case against Zarrab and who was on the cover of Time magazine in February 2012 as “The man who is busting Wall Street” - is connected to the Gülen movement.

But whatever spin the pro-government media may be trying to give the story, Zarrab is beyond Turkey’s reach now and will not enjoy the benefit of any leniency in the U.S., where he reportedly faces up to 75 years in prison. He has reportedly filed for bail but the general expectation is that this will be refused on the assumption that no bail would be granted to someone facing such a high penalty.

Needless to say, all of this is worrisome for quite a few people in Turkey, where the story of Zarrab’s trial is expected to be covered in detail because it is simply too good to miss. Many are waiting avidly to see what he says in court, since Turkey was the base of his alleged illegal operations. 

His remarks could turn out to be damning for some individuals, as well as corporations. They could also have a serious blowback effect on the government as there is a widespread belief that Zarrab could not have gotten away with what he did in Turkey without official support.

What must be most worrying for some officials is that Zarrab may “turn state’s evidence” in order to save his neck and receive a more lenient penalty. Whatever the case turns out to be, it is clear that this will be an intriguing case for Turks to follow given its potential for high drama.