Judge implies Erdoğan government made "inappropriate" move in Zarrab case

Federal Judge Richard Berman, who has been overseeing a high-profile trial involving Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab and banking executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, on Tuesday said that some “people involved in the case” were being “approached inappropriately” including interpreters for Atilla, and warned that if anyone else tried the same thing he would alert the authorities.

He did not go into any detail about the inappropriate behaviour, but it was widely understood to be a reference to proxies of the Turkish government.

Judge Berman also chose to send some strong messages to the Turkish government, whose members have been accusing the U.S. of plotting against Turkey.

“There are lots of press coverage and lots of comments attributed to the Turkish Government that are critical of the case,” he said. “There is freedom of speech, and they are free to comment.”

However, Berman suggested that both the Turkish government and Atilla’s employer Halkbank could serve better his defence by producing evidence and witnesses.

Furthermore, Berman suggested an anonymous jury to keep the trial running smoothly. Both the Prosecutor’s Office and Atilla’s defence agreed on keeping the juror names out of the press during the trial, pending the joint proposal.

During the curcio hearing for Atilla’s newest addition to his team, Todd Harrison of McDermott Will & Emery, Atilla told the court that he had retained Harrison on the suggestion of his former employer, Halkbank. There were not one but two conflicts of interest at play here: Harrison’s law firm represents both Halkbank and Turkey’s EU delegation, and Halkbank were retaining and paying for the attorneys.

With all the conflict of interests, the court appointed Mr. Atilla a conflict-free lawyer; Joshua Dratel. Dratel has represented over 30 clients accused of terrorism including bin Laden’s personal secretary. His most recent clients have been Abu Hamza el-Masri, a former imam who was found guilty of 11 terror-related charges, and Ross Ulbricht the founder of Silk Road, a darknet market for selling illegal drugs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denounced the upcoming trial on Tuesday as a callous and calculated “Western conspiracy” against Turkey.

Erdogan said that the 2013 corruption trials in Turkey involving Zarrab were “one of the greatest conspiracies in history.”

“When that ambush was unsuccessful,” he added, “they took their case to the U.S. If someone is still accusing us with FETÖ arguments, it is because they are playing their part [in this conspiracy].”

FETÖ is the Turkish government’s name for the Fethullah Gülen movement, an international Islamic group accused of masterminding last year’s failed coup attempt.

On Monday, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also lashed out at the trial, claiming that the defendant, businessman Reza Zarrab, was a “hostage” being forced to testify against the Turkish government. Bozdağ argued that the case was "political" and that it lacked “any legal basis".

On Tuesday, the State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, when asked about Erdogan and other governing figures reactions to the Reza Zarrab case, said:

We’ve heard that story, that old same song and dance from Turkey before, and I would have to give you the same answer as last time they accused us of trying to foment some sort of a coup.  And I would say that is ridiculous.  We are not engaged in that.  Anything related to that particular case, I’d just have to refer you to the Department of Justice.

Nauert also said that bilateral relationships were like marriages which have bad and good days, implying that Erdogan may have said “something that later they regret saying”.

The frenzy surrounding this case is mostly due to the Turkish government’s firm conviction that it has been built on evidence devised by followers of shadowy U.S.-based cleric Gülen. Turkey’s elected officials are adamant in their belief that Gülenist agents in the judiciary, military and almost every branch of the government are behind attempts to ‘overthrow the elected government of Turkey.’

The squabble between former partners Gülen and Erdogan began in late 2013. In December 2013, a Turkish police investigation reportedly showed that some Turkish businessmen and officials were involved in a money laundering scheme to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran. 52 people including Reza Zarrab were detained – all connected to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 14 people – including Zarrab, Aslan and some family members of government ministers – were accused of corruption, bribery, money laundering, and gold smuggling.

When recordings of Zarrab and certain government officials leaked to the internet, AKP officials denied the accusations and claimed that the tapes had been manipulated.

Soon after, 350 police officers involved with the investigation were removed from their positions by a government decree and President Erdogan accused Gülen of organising a “judicial coup" against him.

Later, all those involved in the corruption scandal were cleared of all the charges against them while the Turkish government dismissed or reassigned thousands of police officers, prosecutors and judges and passed new laws increasing government control over the judiciary in its attempt to purge the judiciary of Gülen supporters.

The Turkish government and Turkish media had an obsession with conspiracy theories long before the Zarrab case. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey have been suspicious of Western powers wanting to “carve up” their country, and the “elites” within their own government that might be collaborating with them. Of course, it does not help that the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been fighting for independence since the 1980s, and that Gülenists did actually infiltrate Turkish state institutions.

According to Erdoğan and his close circles, the country’s history is plagued with conspiracies and cover-ups, and the Turkish media and public are willing to believe him.

That is why this trial, which implicates some of the same people as in the 2013 corruption allegations, has struck such a nerve.

The Turkish government is very concerned about the recordings that prosecution is going to play during the trial, and how they will be authenticated. The government is also very nervous about Zarrab testifying in court.

During the 18 months Zarrab had been detained, the Turkish government and Erdogan have raised this issue with American officials many times. It was reported that half of a 90-minute private meeting with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was devoted to this topic. He twice raised the issue with President Obama as well. Erdoğan brought up the issue with President Trump too and asked him to remove Preet Bharara, then District Attorney of the Southern District of New York, where the trial is being held.

When Zarrab stopped attending court hearings after a superseding indictment from the prosecutor’s office to include a former minister from Erdoğan’s cabinet, his absence caused speculation that he had struck a plea deal. Outraged, Erdoğan claimed during a speech that the U.S. was forcing Zarrab to become an informant.

And when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons website showed that Zarrab had been released, the Turkish government issued not one but two diplomatic notes questioning his whereabouts.

Both the Turkish government and public are also very suspicious of the ‘true intentions’ of the U.S. prosecutor’s office. According to Andy-Ar, an Istanbul based polling company, 79 percent of Turks think that the U.S. was behind the failed coup attempt. Thus, when an Istanbul prosecutor initiated an unprecedented probe into former U.S. District Attorney Preet Bharara and interim District Attorney Joon Kim asking U.S. authorities how and from whom the evidence for the Zarrab case was obtained, very few Turks were surprised.