Turkey's Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has defended his predecessor Zafer Çağlayan who was charged in absentia Thursday in the U.S. with conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran.
"Çağlayan did not do anything against Turkey's interests," Nihat Zeybekci told reporters. "It is no concern to Turkey if Çağlayan acted against interests of other countries." Zeybekci also said the case against Çağlayan remained unverified. "There are claims that these sanctions are violated, but the ones who make such claims are obliged to prove them."
U.S. prosecutors charged the former Turkish economy minister, former general manager of state-owned Halkbank Süleyman Aslan and two others with conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, the U.S. attorney's office in the Southern District of New York said in a filing Thursday.
The indictment broadens a case targeting Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab over sanctions evasion, which has fueled tension between the U.S. and Turkey.
Zarrab and a Halkbank deputy general manager, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, were both arrested while in the United States in March 2016 and are scheduled to stand trial in October. If convicted, they face prison terms of up to 30 years.
Çağlayan and Aslan are charged with "conspiring to use the U.S. financial system to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran and other Iranian entities, which were barred by U.S. sanctions," between 2010 and 2015.
They were also accused of lying to U.S. government officials about those transactions, laundering funds and defrauding several financial institutions by concealing the true nature of these transactions, the office added in the filing.
As a result of the scheme, U.S. banks unknowingly processed international financial transactions in violation of sanctions, prosecutors said.
The statement said Çağlayan, 59, and three other defendants who were executives of Halkbank laundered money linked to Iran in return for millions of dollars in bribes.
The charges have similarities with the Dec. 17 and 25, 2013 raids conducted by police chiefs and prosecutors linked to the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ). The government stated that the raids were conducted by FETÖ through illegally-obtained evidence and breaking the judicial and administrative hierarchy in a bid to destroy the government's credibility, describing it as a coup attempt.
Following the raids, Çağlayan, Minister of the Interior Muammer Güler and Minister of Environment and Urban Planning Erdoğan Bayraktar, who were implicated in the raids either by themselves or through their relatives, resigned on Dec. 25, 2013. Minister of European Union Affairs, Egemen Bağış, was removed from his post later in the evening by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a major reshuffle involving 10 ministries. In addition, six new ministers were included in the cabinet.
The prosecutor who ordered the raid, Celal Kara and Zekeriya Öz, then-Kara's superior who approved it, are both involved in FETÖ's sham coup trials targeting military officers and political opposition figures in a bid to expand the terrorist group's influence within the military. Both prosecutors have fled abroad and remain at large.
The former ministers were cleared of charges directed against them on Jan. 21, 2015, in a parliament voting on whether to proceed with their trials at the Constitutional Court.
Upon his arrest, Zarrab has hired former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to defend him against the charges.
Giuliani has said that both U.S. and Turkish officials remained "receptive" to a diplomatic solution due to the nature of the charges against Zarrab and the perceived importance of Turkey as an ally.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said he believed U.S. authorities had "ulterior motives" in prosecuting Zarrab.
In a statement posted in Borsa Istanbul's (BIST) Public Disclosure Platform (KAP), Halkbank has said its operations and transactions fully comply with national and international regulations.
"It would appear there is news about our bank and some of its former managers which misleads the public and investors," Halkbank said.
Shares of Halkbank fell 2.5 percent in early trade in Istanbul before paring some losses. They were down 1.5 percent at 14.07 lira at 0750 GMT, underperforming the benchmark BIST 100 index, which was flat.
Some sanctions against Iran were lifted under the 2015 nuclear agreement with major western powers that was designed to curb its nuclear weapons program.
Relations between Washington and NATO ally Turkey have been strained especially since the failed July 15 coup attempt last year. Ankara is seeking, so far without success, the extradition of Fetullah Gülen, the primary suspect of the coup attempt and FETÖ's sham trials and conspiracies. Gülen lives in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
Turkey also accuses the U.S. and Germany of harboring FETÖ suspects and FETÖ-linked figures even after the coup attempt, which killed 250 people and injured 2,200 others.