ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The U.S. case against a Turkish gold trader accused of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran is based on evidence fabricated by the network of the Muslim cleric Ankara blames for last year’s coup attempt, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Friday.
Mevlut Cavusoglu said the case against the trader, Reza Zarrab, showed the extent to which followers of the U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, had infiltrated American state institutions, including its judiciary and overseas missions.
The Zarrab case has complicated already strained relations between the United States and Turkey, both members of the NATO military alliance.
U.S. prosecutors have charged the wealthy Iranian-born Zarrab and his alleged co-conspirators of handling hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015, in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions.
While nine people have been criminally charged, only Zarrab and a banker from Turkey’s Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, are in U.S. custody. Both are due to go on trial on Nov. 27, and have pleaded not guilty.
“When you look at the indictment of Mr Zarrab it is exactly the same one that FETO actually prepared here in Turkey in 2013,” Cavusoglu told reporters at a briefing in Istanbul, using the government’s term for Gulen’s network.
“So this case is very much a FETO-motivated one, this is for sure. All those indictments and files they fabricated here were taken back to the United States.”
Under a Turkish investigation that became public in 2013, prosecutors accused Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials of involvement in facilitating Iranian money transfers via gold smuggling, leaked documents at the time showed.
Erdogan, then prime minister, cast the case as a coup attempt orchestrated by his political enemies. Several prosecutors were removed from the case, police investigators were reassigned, and the investigation was later dropped.
Turkey blames Gulen’s followers for the July 2016 failed coup, when a group of rogue soldiers attempted to overthrow the government and killed more than 250 people.
Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999, has denied any involvement and condemned the coup.
Turkey has repeatedly requested Gulen’s extradition, but U.S. officials have said the courts require sufficient evidence before they can extradite the elderly cleric.
The United States says its judiciary is independent of any political or other interference.
Cavusoglu said he had informed U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of what Ankara sees as the Gulenists’ attempts to spread their influence.
“I told him very openly that I believe that FETO has infiltrated his missions here in Turkey through the local staff, and the Halkbank case and the Zarrab case are very much FETO-motivated ones. I am very open. He didn’t make a comment on this,” Cavusoglu said.
Last month Turkey arrested a local employee working at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul over alleged links to Gulen’s network, prompting an angry reaction from Washington that led to both countries scaling back visa services they provide for each other’s nationals.
On Nov. 6, Ankara and Washington said they would resume visa services on a limited basis, although ties remain strained. [nL8N1NM6XB]
Additional reporting by Daren Butler; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Gareth Jones