Iran’s Zanjani says 1.5 tons of gold transported via İstanbul

According to a report in the Hurriyet daily, Babek Zanjani, the Iranian businessman facing a death sentence for embezzling $2.8 billion from Iran’s state-owned petroleum company, claimed in a hearing on Monday the gold transported by plane to Dubai via İstanbul turned out to be fake.

A cargo plane rented by Zanjani took off from Ghana on Jan. 1, 2013 and landed at İstanbul Ataturk Airport the same day. According to official documents about the cargo of the plane, it was carrying 1,500 kilograms of “mineral samples.”

But customs officers inspected the plane and found 1,208 kilograms of gold, along with 250 kilograms of unidentified minerals.

The plane was grounded for around two weeks at İstanbul Ataturk Airport after being sealed for improper documentation and suspicions of smuggling. It later turned out some 292 kilograms of gold bars in the cargo plane went missing before the plane left for Dubai.

According to the daily’s article, which is based on reports by Iranian media outlets, Zanjani was asked by the court whether he had transferred 445 million euros to the Safir gold company owned by Zarrab and paid him 12 million euros in commission.

In response, Zanjani reportedly said: “The Iranian Central Bank’s money was in accounts in the Parsian and Sarmayeh banks. These two banks wanted to transfer money to Turkey’s Halkbank. So both these two banks as well as Halkbank received a commission [over the money order]. Actually Zarrab did not receive any commission, the 12 million euros was the commission taken by the banks.”

A courier who used to work for Zarrab Adem Karahan in July this year provided details on how Zarrab facilitated the gold trade he was conducting to circumvent the international sanctions against Iran and how Turkish government officials helped him.

In an interview with the Cumhuriyet daily, Karahan, who also previously spoke to a customs inspector, said Zarrab sold 200 tons of gold in 2012 and 2013. Stating that it was just money that flew abroad until 2012, Karahan said Zarrab’s company sold gold worth TL 18 billion just in a year.

“Four percent of that money went to politicians and four percent went to Zarrab. But we do not know who the actual owner of the money is. Zarrab is also earning money by transferring someone’s money,” he said.

Stating that two groups each consisting of 22 couriers conducted the gold transfers, Karahan said the two groups facilitated a total of a ton of gold every day at different hours of the day. When asked whether they had any difficulty at the customs, Karahan said the customs officials were all in the know about what was going on.

He added: “They were welcoming us at the entrance of the airport. We used to show them the invoices and they would impress new seals on the gold boxes after conducting the necessary checks. They were not creating problem as they were also receiving their bribes. Zarrab was personally paying them. I personally witnessed this.”

Zarrab was accused as part of an investigation of managing a network used to launder at least 87 billion euros to circumvent international sanctions against Iran. In addition, he allegedly bribed ministers, their sons and public officials to keep his network working. According to prosecutors’ findings, Zarrab distributed TL 139 million in bribes.

Zanjani reportedly also said in court that the gold was discovered to be fake after it arrived in Dubai. “The person M., who appears to be the owner of the cargo, went with our men to get the cargo [in Dubai]. They then noticed the so-called gold bars were covered in acrylic.”

The members of the Turkish government who were allegedly involved in corruption were Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Interior Minister Muammer Guler, Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar and EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagıs. The ministers resigned from their posts on Dec. 25, 2013.

The prosecutor of the corruption investigation said in an interview at the beginning of this year all evidence indicated in the investigation that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the person behind Zarrab’s shady dealings.

According to a story published by the T24 news portal in September last year, 292 kilograms of the gold loaded on the plane were somehow smuggled into Turkey.

The news portal said, based on an expert report by the Ministry of Customs and Trade of which it said had managed to obtain a copy, the gold was worth some TL 30 million at the time of the smuggling.

Experts pointed out in the report that Iranian businessman Zarrab was directly involved in the smuggling incident and that he even proposed bribing customs officers to help with the smuggling. The experts asked prosecutor’s offices to launch an investigation into the gold-laden plane.

An investigation was launched in early 2014, but it fizzled out in July when the İstanbul Governor’s Office refused to grant permission to prosecute 18 customs officers who were accused of possible misconduct.

The experts also stated in their report that smugglers were planning to transfer three tons of gold in the plane, but they had to reduce the amount to 1.2 tons due to problems. The report did not elaborate on the said problems.

Officials from ULS Airways, the company operating the plane, said 500 kilograms of the gold belonged to the Duru Doviz company while the rest was supposed to go to Sorinet Holding in Iran.

However, because no documentation was presented, customs officers sealed the cargo and grounded the plane at İstanbul Ataturk Airport for around two weeks.

Despite the accusations in the investigation files, supported by such evidence as photos of money transactions between his men and the aides of ministers, the accusations were dropped and Zarrab and all the other suspects were freed after the government removed the prosecutors and police officers who were in charge of the graft probe.

Erdogan praised Zarrab as a “philanthropist” while the then-Interior Minister Guler was heard in a leaked phone conversation purportedly telling Zarrab, who is less than 30 years old, that he would do anything to prevent any harm from befalling Zarrab. Zarrab was also accused of giving then-Economy Minister Caglayan a luxury watch worth $350,000.

Caglayan was allegedly involved with Zarrab in efforts to bring 1.5 tons of gold from Ghana to Turkey by plane.

The Hurriyet report also said based on the expert report the plane that transported the gold to İstanbul on false documents flew to Dubai after paying a fine of TL 114.

Zanjani is believed to have sold Iranian oil internationally and transferred the oil-related money back to Iran on behalf of the Iranian government.

The most crucial accusation facing Zanjani is “fasad-fil-arz,” an Arabic term translated as spreading mischief on earth. The penalty prescribed by Iranian law for such a crime is execution based on Islamic law.

This terminology was widely discussed in Turkey after the Dec. 17, 2013 graft probes. When some allegedly pro-government scholars in Turkey defended the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and explained that corruption does not necessarily have to be taken as thievery, those who disagreed said corruption is indeed not thievery but “fasad-fil-arz” and therefore requires a heavier punishment than stealing.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN

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