An AKP classic: impeding a fair trial

When Turkish courts dropped charges against Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and dozens of others close to the ruling party after their arrests in December 2013, they not only deprived the accused of the right to clear their names in a fair trial, but also the public of its right to be informed of the actions of those in power.

Zarrab’s testimony to a New York court last week dominated headlines in Turkey, though few of his allegations about links between ministers and officials and his complex schemes to circumvent international sanctions on Iran made it to much of the press.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami in March 2016 as he arrived for a family holiday. Facing possibly decades in a U.S. jail if found guilty, Zarrab agreed to testify to all he knows and implicate others, though not to lie, in return for a lighter sentence.

But it is not his first time in jail, He, along with more than 80 others were detained in Turkey in a large police sweep, beginning on Dec. 17, 2013, that also netted the sons of three ministers.

Initially wrong-footed, the government struck back and the prosecutors and police who had ordered and carried out the arrests were removed from office and accused of being followers of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, an ally-turned-enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In the meantime however, parliament had formed a committee to investigate the allegations of corruption at the highest levels. But the ruling party sabotaged its work and much of the evidence it gathered was lost.

Even so, Zarrab’s release from custody in February 2014, along with the freeing of Süleyman Aslan, the general manager of state-owned Halkbank, led to considerable controversy. U.S. prosecutors say Zarrab colluded with Halkbank to launder billions of dollars from the oil-for-gold sanctions-busting scheme.

Aslan was fired from his job, but Zarrab went on to be officially awarded for his “business activities”. The deputy prime minister and the economy minister personally presented Zarrab with the “Export Champion” award of 2015. Much of the exports of his companies, Zarrab told the U.S. court last week, were fictitious and used to cover his illicit trade in embargoed oil.

What has become known in Turkey as the Dec. 17-25 process was left mostly unresolved, and the public was deprived of its right to be informed about the administration’s actions. However, transparency in governance and the inalienable right of people to be informed is a minimum requirement of the rule of law in a democratic state.

The accused ministers also could not defend themselves before an open court and were deprived of their right to a fair trial.

Now that Zarrab has testified to the New York court about the bribes he paid to Turkish ministers, the government and AKP have started claiming the trial is a conspiracy against Turkey and that Zarrab is a spy.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has meanwhile asked both the government and the Turkish president to explain to the public, "Who in the government handed over state secrets to Reza Zarrab?" and "Who closed the Zarrab files?"

Those who criticised Zarrab’s release from Turkish custody were accused of being members of what Turkey calls the Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETÖ). Now the same government is accusing Zarrab of working for FETÖ.

One simple question: if Zarrab et al. had been subjected to a fair trial in Turkey, would the U.S. case still be seen as "an international coup attempt" against the Turkish government?

The CHP has demanded the reopening of the investigation into the corruption scandal.

But the "shielding the criminals" is almost AKP standard practice. How is it done?

- Keeping public officials immune from the judiciary through legislation, or not giving permission for an investigation,

- Keeping selected party members out of the judicial process, for example the ministers implicated in the Zarrab case, or directly removing them from office by unlawful means, the way a number of AKP mayors were forced to resign recently.

- Protecting key AKP supporters from the judiciary at any cost.

- And from a political perspective, avoiding accountability by claiming an electoral mandate.

The AKP government not only diffused accountability from the beginning, but also labelled any sort of criticism as a "smear campaign". AKP governments have been very skillful at deflecting criticism with slogans. Before last year’s July 15th coup attempt, the AKP governments almost always pivoted any type of criticism of their legislation by calling it a “coup attempt”. Yet somehow, the actual coup attempt did not come from their critics, but from one of their ex-partners – the Gülenists.

Hence the AKP government, unable to use the “coup attempt” pivot strategy after the real coup attempt, is either accusing its detractors of being ‘FETÖ’ists or collaborating with “foreign powers to harm Turkey”. With the Zarrab trial, they are doing both - accusing all critics of being ‘FETÖ’ists, and collaborating with foreign powers.

From a legal point of view, the Zarrab trial must be re-opened in Turkey because of the new evidence that has emerged in the U.S. trial. From the political point of view, a retrial would re-examine the case, and if it really is a national security problem, it will relieve pressure from the government. From the public's point of view, Turkish society would receive its right to be informed of the acts of their officials.