General / In the Middle East

Crisis in Turkey: A case of “Endemic Corruption”

Since the summer of 2013, Turkey’s masses have been enthralled in on-going protests against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his administration’s growing authoritarian policies and practices. With Erdoğan responding much like Syria’s Assad regime through police brutality against protestors and media censorship, anger and outrage have spread quickly throughout Turkey as well as the international community. But while those of us abroad have been fixated on Erdoğan pledging to “rip out the roots” of social networks, by restricting Twitter and later YouTube, domestically the administration has been consumed in a corruption scandal that involves money-laundering, gold-smuggling, sanction-dodging, and a mysterious businessman, known simply as “B.Z.”

On December 17, 2013, the Financial Crimes and Battle Against Criminal Incomes department of the Istanbul Security Directory detained 47 individuals. These individuals included several officials from Turkey’s Housing Development Administration, the District Municipality of Faith, and the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, as well as Barış Güler, Kaan Çağlayan and Oğuz Bayraktar, sons of Turkish ministers, Muammer Güler (Minister of the Interior), Zafer Çaglayan (Minister of Economy), and Erdoğan Bayraktar (Minister of Environment and Urban Planning). The initial detainments only led to further arrests of government officials and prominent businessmen, but one arrest specifically opened the floodgates wide open to a multi-national corruption scandal, involving billions of dollars and numerous corruption and bribery allegations. A mere four days after the initial arrests, the court ordered 14 more, including the detainment of Iranian Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab, for his involvement with the three minster’s sons and the former minister for EU Affairs, Egemen Bagis.

Zarrab, born in Tehran, Iran, to a wealthy family from Tabriz, gained dual citizenship of Azerbaijan and Turkey after settling in Istanbul with his wife, Turkish singer, Ebru Gündes. For the past few years, Zarrab’s name could usually be found in Turkey’s celebrity columns, in his $72 million villa or sitting near the Prime Minister at a government-housing ceremony. However, since his arrest, Zarrab has had to trade in his villa for a “Type T” prison in Istanbul, where he shares a room with four other prisoners and is allowed one hour of recreation a day.

Court documents revealed that the 29-year-old was at the heart of a financial crime ring that involved bribery, forgery, and gold-smuggling which has led to the arrests of hundreds in Turkey as well as the resignation of three prominent cabinet ministers. Zarrab kept his government and ministry connections on speed dial while giving away millions of dollars in cash and gifts. He is indicated as the head of a criminal organization that allegedly distributed TL $137 million in bribes in order to cover up fictitious exporting and money laundering by his organization. Initial reports from the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor indicates former parliamentary members and bureaucrats with diplomatic passports were employed as couriers who transferred approximately $20 billion from sanctions-hit Iran into Turkey.

As charges and the exposition of a number of corrupted officials has continued to pile up, Zarrab finally told prosecutors the name of his boss, who had managed to flee just before the operation was launched. In the interrogation documents, Zarrab referred to his “chief” as a businessman with the initials, B.Z, which according to the same reports points to, Iranian businessman and chairman of the Sorinet Group Holding, Babak Zanjani – the self-proclaimed “Economic Basij” of Iran.

Zarrab caught a break in late February 2014, when a Turkish court released him, along with several other suspects and two of the cabinet ministers’ sons. According to Turkey’s Hürriyet newspaper, the court ruled the release of the jailed defendants as there is “no suspicion that the suspects could flee or eradicate the evidence.” The court also ruled for a travel ban as well as an order for the defendants to check in with Turkish police each week.

In regards to the current investigation, no suspects are behind bars with the release of these suspects. The release came before a backdrop of “changes” by the AK Party, which Erdoğan’s opponents claim to be part of a new law that will grant stronger control and authority to the government over the judiciary, which will ultimately lead to the derailing of the Graft investigation.[i]

And yet with all suspects out on bail, the investigation rages on. Prime Minister Erdoğan and his supporters continue to claim that the inquiry is baseless and merely a “plot” against the administration, supported by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. Erdoğan’s administration claims that the Islamist cleric who based in the U.S. has utilized blackmail and threats to manipulate the judiciary and the ruling government. However, in response to public outrage over the releases, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arinç told CNN Türk, “The releases [pending trial] have hurt consciences…I do not say, ‘let them stay behind bars,’ but I want to see the [investigation] file include the extent to which a businessman influenced the public interest.”

[i] A “Graft Investigation” is a colloquial term referring to the unlawful acquisition of public money through questionable and improper transactions with public officials.