The Zarrab trial: damage limitation in the Turkish media

After months spent trying and failing to halt the U.S. prosecution of Turkish citizens on charges of sanctions busting - the so-called Zarrab trial - the Turkish government has directed its efforts to limiting the impact of the case on Turkish domestic opinion.

The change of approach can be gauged from the recent upsurge in coverage of the case in the government-controlled Turkish media, which had for months attempted to sweep the affair under the rug.

The Turkish government’s anxiety is all the more acute given that the former main defendant, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, has likely reached a deal with prosecutors. His co-defendant Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of Turkey’s Halkbank, will now be alone in facing accusations of helping Iran evade sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme when the trial opens in New York on Dec. 4.

If, as expected, Zarrab has made a full confession and implicates others in return for a reduced sentence, his testimony is expected to reveal details that will, at the very least, acutely embarrass Turkey.

Two recent newspaper articles, one from Akşam (taken from the semi-official Anadolu News Agency) the other from Sabah, both government mouthpieces, typify recent coverage of the case in Turkey and illustrate how the Turkish government is trying to sell the story to its public.  

Akşam focuses on discrediting two expert witnesses slated to give evidence, Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer. The pair hold executive positions at the U.S. think-tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). According to the article, both have been critical of Turkey in the past and have ‘connections’ to Israel (a perennial Turkish bogeyman) and the United Arab Emirates (a more recent regional rival to Turkey).

Dubowitz, the article also points out, is known for his criticism of Iran, whilst Schanzer is said to be working closely with another member of the FDD, Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament representing the main opposition Republican People’s Party. Erdemir, in turn, is noted to have been critical of Turkish foreign policy and to have recently shared a table at a panel with a member of the Gülen movement (which the Turkish government holds responsible for the failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey).

The Sabah piece, based on an interview with Turkish lawyer Mehmet Sarı, takes a different tack. Whilst some space is allocated to discrediting the U.S. prosecutors assigned to the case, the majority of the article casts doubt both the basic premises behind the case and the evidence.

According to Sarı, the case is political in nature, representing an attempt to undermine Turkey by criminalising legitimate trade between Turkey and Iran.

The evidence, Sarı said, is both stolen and fraudulent.

First, Sarı assumes the evidence will be the same as that used in the 2013 Turkish corruption scandal - a Gülen movement inspired attempt to bring down the Turkish government. Since the Turkish government later declared the evidence to be fake, it ought to be inadmissible in the United States, Sarı said.

Second, since the Turkish Justice Ministry did not supply this evidence to the United States, it must have accessed it via illegal channels. For this reason, Turkey has launched an investigation into the U.S. prosecutors responsible for gathering the evidence.

Sarı further notes that because defence lawyers have not had access to all the evidence to be used, the principle of a fair trial is violated. It goes without saying that Sarı, and the government supporting media in Turkey have been rather less vocal in their support of the same principle when it comes to many of the trials currently underway in Turkey.

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