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Turkish PM to visit US as Erdoğan makes threats over Zarrab case

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is to pay a visit to the US Nov. 7 to 11 amid claims Reza Zarrab, a Turkish gold trader who has been charged in Manhattan with conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran, may be prepared to plead guilty.

Reporting on the dates of the visit, the state-run Anadolu news agency did not provide details of Yıldırım’s agenda.

Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül last week said all the documents for the extradition of Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who the government accuses of masterminding a failed coup on July 15, 2016, were completed, and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will speak with the US administration on this issue as well as others during his visit to Washington.

Yıldırım’s visit comes as tension between Ankara and Washington is rising over Zarrab.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Turkish gold trader Zarrab may be prepared to plead guilty.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Oct. 24 strongly criticized the US administration for allegedly trying to force Zarrab to give them names from the Turkish government: “We are following this. We know how to set the world on fire when all those issues are done. We will tell all.”

According to the NYT report, lawyers for Zarrab’s co-defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy general manager of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, wrote that Zarrab “has essentially not participated in the case” since September, and it seemed “likely that Atilla will be the only defendant appearing at trial.”

Zarrab has been seeking the dismissal of charges against him since his arrest in March 2016. He had gathered together a team of lawyers, including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

According to the NYT, Zarrab hired Giuliani in an effort to try to persuade the Trump administration and Turkey’s President Erdoğan to agree to a diplomatic resolution to his case.

The NYT report said there were signs of inaction from Zarrab’s lawyers as they let a deadline pass without filing court papers that would have allowed him to challenge the admissibility of key government evidence against him.

The lawyers also did not submit proposed jury instructions or questions to be asked of prospective jurors when they are selected for the trial, which is scheduled to begin on Nov. 27.

And there was no indication that Zarrab had joined in court filings made by Atilla’s lawyers, who on Monday filed challenges to the government’s evidence and offered jury-related proposals.

“If Mr. Zarrab is negotiating a guilty plea, one question will be whether he would cooperate with the American investigation. The prosecution has strained relations between the United States and Turkey, and has drawn sharp criticism from President Erdoğan, who has often raised it with American officials,” the NYT said.

A total of nine people have been charged in the case, including former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, although only Zarrab and Atilla are in custody in New York.

The potential new development comes at a time of continued tension between the United States and Turkey, as played out most recently with both countries suspending visa services in a dispute over Turkey’s detention of two United States consulate employees.

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York on Sept. 6 indicted Çağlayan, former Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Aslan, Levent Bakkal and Abdullah Happani and ordered arrest warrants for them.

The four are charged with conspiring to use the US financial system to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions on behalf of the government of Iran and other Iranian entities barred by US sanctions.

Erdoğan stated in September that he had told Washington that Turkey had never agreed to comply with its sanctions on Iran and called on the US to review the indictment. He also said US President Donald Trump had called him and agreed to follow the case closely.

Erdoğan demanded the release of Zarrab as well as the firing of then-US Attorney Preet Bharara during a private meeting with then-US Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 21, 2016, devoting half the 90-minute conversation to Zarrab, David Ignatius wrote for The Washington Post on Oct. 12.

“Erdogan’s campaign to free Zarrab has been extraordinary. He demanded his release as well as the firing of Bharara in a private meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden on Sept. 21, 2016, in which U.S. officials say half the 90-minute conversation was devoted to Zarrab,” wrote Ignatius.

“Erdogan’s wife [Emine Erdoğan] pleaded the case that night to Jill Biden [wife of Biden]. Turkey’s then-justice minister, Bekir Bozdag, visited then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch in October to argue that the case was ‘based on no evidence’ and that Zarrab should be released.”

Zarrab was the prime suspect in a major corruption investigation in Turkey that became public in December 2013 in which with others from the inner circle of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan for having paid Cabinet-level officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.

After Erdoğan cast the case as a coup attempt to overthrow his government orchestrated by his political enemies, several prosecutors were removed from the case, police were reassigned and the investigation against Zarrab was dropped.

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