09:46 GMT09 July 2020
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    Friction between Washington and Ankara is only increasing after the US charged a former Turkish economy minister and other Turkish citizens with conspiracy and money laundering, charges the Turkish president called politically motivated and unjust.

    The US Justice Department alleges senior Turkish officials conspired to subvert US sanctions against Iran and cancel an arms deal. They say the crimes were undertaken as retaliation after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards were indicted for assaulting peaceful protesters outside the Turkish Embassy in Washington earlier this year.

    Former Economy Minister Mehmet Zafer Caglayan, who served in Erdogan’s administration from 2011 to 2013, is alleged to have conspired with three other people to execute transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars in US financial markets on behalf of the Iranian government, according to the US Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York. Prosecutors charged Caglayan with lying to US financial institutions about the nature of those transactions, laundering money to hide the transactions, and accepting bribes to conduct the operation, the Justice Department announced Wednesday.

    "I see this step against our former economy minister as a step against the Turkish Republic," Erdogan said Thursday in response to the allegations.

    The Turkish president told reporters that he had made clear to the previous US administration that he would not pursue sanctions against Iran. “We didn’t decide to impose sanctions on Iran,” Erdogan said. "These steps are purely political … The United States need to revise this decision [to charge Caglayan] … You may be a big nation, but being a just nation is something else. Being a just nation requires the legal system to work fairly."

    The US Attorney’s Office included former Halkbank Managing Director Suleyman Aslan, Levent Balkan and Abdullah Happani in the indictment for participating "in the same overarching scheme to violate and evade prohibitions against Iran’s access to the US financial system." Aslan, 47, Balkan, 56, and Happani, 43 are Turkish residents and citizens. 

    "It is no concern to Turkey if Caglayan acted against interests of other countries," current Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci told reporters in Istanbul on Thursday.

    Prosecutors said Caglayan, 59, accepted "tens of millions of dollars’ worth of bribes in cash and jewelry from proceeds of the scheme," delegated officers at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank to carry out specific transactions, and "protected the scheme from competitors as well as from scrutiny."

    The indictment marks the first time US officials have targeted an ex-minister with close ties to Erdogan for criminal wrongdoing.

    Meanwhile, the US Senate passed a measure Thursday banning the sale of US arms to security officials responsible for protecting Erdogan. The bipartisan move sends a clear message that Washington’s lawmakers "are not going to let President Erdogan’s bodyguards attack peaceful American protestors on American soil – and we’re certainly not going to sell them weapons while they do it,” said ranking member of the Committee on the Budget Chris Van Hollen, the junior senator from Maryland.

    ​In July, the House of Representatives passed a comparable measure stalling the Trump administration’s deal to supply Turkish security personnel with Sig Sauer semi-automatic handguns.

    While visiting Washington in May, Erdogan sat calmly in a Mercedes parked in front of the Turkish Embassy near Georgetown as his substantial cadre of security forces stormed a nearby protest, injuring demonstrators and Washington police officers. Observers speculated that Erdogan personally ordered the attack on American protesters in the US capital.  


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