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US courts ‘can never try my country,’ says Turkish president

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech to supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during a rally in Kars, eastern Turkey, on December 2, 2017. (Photo by AP)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rejected the planned trial by a US court of a Turkish bank executive who has been accused of evading Washington’s sanctions against Iran, saying courts in the United States cannot put Turkey on trial.

US courts "can never try my country,” Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the northeastern province of Kars on Saturday.

Already strained ties between Ankara and Washington have deteriorated in recent weeks after Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab gave a testimony in a US court on Wednesday, implicating Erdogan in an alleged Iran sanctions-busting scheme.

Zarrab, a Turkish citizen of Iranian descent,  said in a New York court on Wednesday that he had been told in 2012 by the then economy minister, Zafer Caglayan, that Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, had personally instructed Ziraat Bank and VakifBank to participate in the scheme to allegedly help Iran evade US sanctions.

The businessman also noted that he had bribed Caglayan and Halkbank’s former general manager, Suleyman Aslan, to facilitate deals with the Islamic Republic.

US prosecutors have charged a total of nine people in the case with purportedly conspiring to help Iran evade sanctions, but only Zarrab and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former deputy chief of Halkbank, have been arrested.

People use ATM machines at a branch of Turkish bank Halkbank in Istanbul on December 1, 2017. (Photo by AFP)

Erdogan, who has dismissed the case as a politically-motivated attempt to bring down the Turkish government, said on Thursday that Turkey had not violated US bans against Iran and “did the right thing.”

Vakifbank also said on Friday that it had never had any interest or involvement whatsoever in any of the processes mentioned in Zarrab’s trial.

Turkey has cast the testimony as an attempt to undermine Turkey and its economy, and has previously said it was a "clear plot" by the network of the US-based opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Ankara government accuses of having masterminded the failed July 2016 coup.

Anadolu News Agency cited Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu as saying on Saturday that Gulen's followers had infiltrated the US judiciary, Congress, and other state institutions.

Turkey is outraged by the US refusal to extradite Gulen. Washington says there should be enough evidence supporting the claim that the cleric was involved in the abortive military coup.

And in a further blow to Ankara-Washington ties, Turkey's chief prosecutor issued an arrest warrant on Friday for former CIA officer Graham Fuller over accusations that he had been involved in the coup attempt.

The prosecutor accused Fuller, former vice-chair of the US National Intelligence Council, of "attempting to overthrow" Turkey's government and of “obtaining secret state information."

Turkish opposition cleric Fethullah Gulen at his home in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania, US, on July 10, 2017 (Photo by Reuters)

On July 15, 2016, a faction of the Turkish military declared that it had seized control of the country and Erdogan’s government was no more in charge. The attempt was, however, suppressed a few hours later. Gulen denies any involvement in the military revolt.

Turkey, which remains in a state of emergency since the failed coup, has been engaged in a crackdown campaign against the media and opposition groups suspected to have played a role in the botched coup.

So far, over 50,000 people have been arrested in Turkey on suspicion of having links to Gulen and the failed coup. More than 150,000 others, including military staff, civil servants and journalists, have been sacked or suspended from work over the same accusations.

Rights groups and European governments have repeatedly criticized Ankara for the continued crackdown, saying it has mainly targeted dissent.

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