U.S. charges former Turkish minister with evasion of U.S. sanctions against Iran

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FILE PHOTO: Turkey’s then Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan speaks during a news conference in Arbil, about 350 km (220 miles) north of Baghdad January 18, 2012. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari Reuters

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors have charged a former Turkish economy minister and the former head of a Turkish state bank with conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, widening an investigation that has fuelled tension between Washington and Ankara.

The indictment is the first time a former member of the Turkish government with close ties to President Tayyip Erdogan has been charged in the case, which stems from an investigation into a Turkish-Iranian gold trader over sanctions evasion.

Erdogan has said he believed U.S. authorities had “ulterior motives” in prosecuting the wealthy gold trader, Reza Zarrab, who was arrested by U.S. authorities last year.

Prosecutors charged former economy minister Zafer Caglayan and former Halkbank general manager Suleyman Aslan and two others, according to a statement, dated Wednesday, from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.

They were 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 United States sanctions”.

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, U.S. prosecutors said.

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 begin trial in October.

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.

Caglayan, Aslan and others indicted in the case on Wednesday remain at large, U.S. prosecutors said.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach Caglayan or Aslan for comment. Halkbank has said its said its operations and transactions fully comply with national and international regulations.

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.

Writing by Daren Butler and David Dolan; Editing by Robert Birsel and Dominic Evans

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