Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has placed a travel ban on four former ministers and 18 bureaucrats some of whom are sought by the U.S. authorities for their alleged role in a multi-billion dollar scheme to subvert the U.S. sanctions against Iran, a development that speaks to the volume of fear among the Turkish leaders.
According to a report by Aydinlik daily, which is close to Dogu Perincek, an Erdogan ally, the president strictly forbid overseas travel of certain close associates for the fear that they might be arrested abroad.
The move came after Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was formerly close to President Erdogan, chose to cooperate with the U.S. prosecutors and became a “star witness” in a case that ruffled feathers in Ankara.
U.S. prosecutors indicted former Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, former general manager of Halkbank Suleyman Aslan and seven other defendants for their systematic efforts to skirt the U.S. sanctions in a bid to help Iran make its international payments through Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank.
Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla appears as the only defendant in a packed courtroom in Manhattan after Mr. Zarrab moved to the witness stand.
The businessman’s revelations rattled Turkey. He implicated then-Prime Minister Erdogan, former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan in the scheme and told jurors that both ordered two other Turkish public banks — Ziraatbank and Vakifbank — to take part in the business with Iran.
Mr. Zarrab also acknowledged that he bribed former Economy Minister Caglayan up to 50 million euros.
President Erdogan appeared enraged and castigated U.S. prosecutors for “enforcing the businessman to discredit Turkey” through a bulk of lies.
But soon after the gold trader pointed to Mr. Erdogan as the key figure in the gold-for-oil arrangement with Iran, Turkish authorities seized Mr. Zarrab’s properties in Turkey and arrested 17 of his company workers and close associates.
Former EU Affairs Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bagis, former Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, former Interior Minister Muammer Guler, former Economy Minister Caglayan and senior bureaucrats are banned from traveling abroad, according to Birgun daily.
The major source of Mr. Erdogan’s concern, the daily reported, is the possibility that any of the above figures might also switch sides, like Zarrab, and become a witness, preferring to cooperate with U.S. legal authorities if they are somehow apprehended when they travel abroad.
Until last minute whether Mr. Zarrab would appear as a defendant or testify in the witness stand remained unclear, a factor that jolted nerves of the Turkish government. U.S. Judge Richard Berman withheld that information from the public and press until very recently.
Mr. Zarrab’s name entered into court records as a witness in the sanctions trial on Oct. 26. But the press was able to learn that he would testify in the courtroom only a day after jury selection in late November.
As Ankara built its narrative on ‘Zarrab the victim’ who was unjustly treated as a defendant, his shift left the Turkish leaders shuddering, sent shivers down their spines.
To avoid another betrayal and an accident, Mr. Erdogan and his team view every other figure on the U.S. list as a potential suspect who might switch sides.
Already, then-Prime Minister Erdogan went through a similar nerve-racking moment when a corruption scandal convulsed Turkey’s political landscape, implicated his family members, close associates, senior bureaucrats and cabinet ministers in late December 2013.
Erdogan Bayraktar, Minister of Environment and Urban Planning of the time, refused any wrongdoing and implicated his prime minister, Mr. Erdogan, for tender rigging, zoning frauds and nepotism in public tenders in mega-urban development projects.
Mr. Bayraktar said he did everything with the consent and full knowledge of Mr. Erdogan while offering his resignation. He even went as far to demand then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s resignation and said it would be better for the public’s good if Mr. Erdogan quits, too.
The episode left a deep scar in political memory of President Erdogan.
The Aydinlik and Birgun stories show that he is bent on doing everything to avoid any further defection from his entourage and close associates.