As the Erdogan government in Turkey continues to stall corruption probes aimed at the highest levels of government, we find at the center of it all a charismatic Iranian millionaire who immigrated to Turkey, gained Turkish citizenship, and married one of the country’s biggest pop stars.
Only 30 years old, Riza Sarrif was the main facilitator of Turkish gold being smuggled into Iran in payment for natural gas and oil. Sarrif is accused of handing out millions of dollars in bribes to ingratiate himself to cabinet ministers and other powerful people, while controlling at least 46% of the gold trade between Turkey and Iran. Turkish exports to Iran increased by over 100 times between 2011 and 2012, from $55 million to $6.5billion.
It all came crashing down with the detention in Istanbul of the “Mystery Jet” from Ghana on January 1, 2013. Loaded with 1.5 tons of gold and headed for Dubai, the jet’s manifest had been forged in Ghana to show that the cargo consisted of mineral samples. Intending to land on the Asian side of Istanbul, where compliant customs officials presumably awaited, it was diverted to the airport on the European side due to fog. When officials inspected the airplane, it was seized for forged documents and suspicion of smuggling. As we covered previously, the jet was allowed to leave under curious circumstances.
Transcripts from Turkish police show that Sarraf was the person behind the flight. He called the economy minister, to whom he had previously given a $370,000 watch, to ask for his intervention. Airport officials were told by the economy minister’s office to release the jet. Police also accused Sarraf of giving the economy minister’s son $1.5 million. The questionable release of the jet led to investigations which have ballooned to swallow many of Turkey’s top officials.
The economy minister, as well as the interior and environment ministers have resigned due to corruption allegations (not all involving gold smuggling.) The sons of several ministers, as well as prime minister Erdogan’s own son, have also been implicated. Erdogan has fired or reassigned over 5,000 police chiefs and officers, as well as 120 ministry officials and prosecutors, including the chief prosecutor of the corruption probe. This is an attempt to stifle further revelations, according to opposition politicians.
Tensions are running high as foreign capital flees the nation, protesters take to the streets, and the Turkish lira continues to fall to new lows. An attempt by the ruling party to push through a law allowing the government more control over the judiciary devolved into fistfights on the floor of Parliament, with an opposition leader taken to the hospital.