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Businessman at center of graft scandal in Turkey gave first lady a luxury handbag: voice recordings

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Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, one of the main suspects in a 2013 corruption investigation in Turkey, bought a luxury handbag worth $42,000 as a gift for Emine Erdoğan, the wife of then-prime minister and current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the recording of an intercepted telephone conversation — part of police surveillance in the corruption investigation — revealed on Friday.

Zarrab was one of the main suspects in the corruption investigation that shook the country in December 2013. He was accused of paying large bribes to Turkish ministers and bureaucrats as part of the probe that implicated the family members of four cabinet ministers and Erdoğan’s children, among others.

Cevheri Güven, an investigative journalist currently living in exile, posted a video on YouTube on Friday about the corruption scandal and alleged bribes Erdoğan took. The video featured two recordings of phone conversations between Zarrab and his right-hand man, Abdullah Happani.

In one of the phone conversations, which took place in April 2013, Zarrab is heard asking Happani about his monthly expenses. The Iranian-Turkish businessman talks about a handbag worth 75,000 lira ($42,000 at the time) that he bought as a gift for Erdoğan’s wife.

President Erdoğan and his family are the subject of frequent criticism due to their use of luxury items at a time of increased poverty among Turkish people.

A $50,000 Hermès handbag Emine Erdoğan carried while accompanying her husband on a visit to Japan led to outrage at the time.

2013 graft scandal

On December 17, 2013 Turkey awoke to news of police raids in İstanbul and the arrest of the sons of three then-ministers of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Iranian-Turkish businessman Zarrab, the director of a state-owned bank, a district mayor and many others.

The probe implicated the family members of four cabinet ministers and Erdoğan’s children.

Although the scandal led to the resignation of the four cabinet members, the investigation was dropped after prosecutors and police chiefs were removed from the case. Erdoğan, officials from the ruling AKP and the pro-government media characterized the investigation as an attempt to topple the government.

Erdoğan, who dismissed the investigation as a plot by the Gülen movement, a group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, against his government, classified the faith-based movement as a terrorist organization and began targeting its members.

He jailed thousands, including many prosecutors, judges, and police officers involved in the investigation.

Some of the claims that were part of the corruption investigation were later substantiated in New York federal court where Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla was sentenced to 32 months for conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran and other offenses.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami in 2016 for violating US sanctions on Iran before cooperating with US prosecutors in exchange for leniency, which led to the indictment and arrest of Attila in March 2017.

Last year, Adem Yavuz Arslan, a Turkish journalist living in exile working for the TR724 news website, published a report revealing Zarrab’s new identity. He is currently living in Davie, Florida, under the name of Aaron Goldsmith.

Months after Arslan’s report, judicial documents released on the judiciary electronic system by US District Judge Richard Berman, who presided over the 2017 trial, revealed that Zarrab was freed on bail in 2018.

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