CHICAGO (STMW) — The buildup to Chicagoan C. Greg Turner’s trial has been dominated by allegations former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, a star prosecution witness, tried to shake down a businessman for a $250,000-a-year job.

But Burris was only a side note Monday as opening statements in Turner’s trial focused instead on Turner’s character and his role at the center of an international drama that could have been ripped from the pages of a spy thriller.

Prosecutors painted the 72-year-old Turner as a greedy opportunist who sought to cash in on President Barack Obama’s election by secretly and illegally lobbying Chicago politicians to lift U.S. sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

But Turner’s lawyers said Turner is a “humanitarian” with a track record of helping struggling African nations, who believed Obama’s election would herald “a historic change” in the U.S. approach to foreign nations including Zimbabwe. They said a contract Turner’s business partner allegedly agreed with the Zimbabwean government to act as its agent is a forgery.

During opening statements watched by U.S. Attorney Zach Fardon, however, prosecutor Georgia Alexakis said Turner himself had forged the signatures of several Chicago politicians, including Burris, on letters of support for Mugabe.

Mugabe and his ruling elite have since 2001 been the target of U.S. sanctions that seek to punish them for vote-rigging, political violence and intimidation, but Turner and his business partner Prince Asiel Ben Israel — who previously pleaded guilty — decided to “leverage their political connections” in Chicago and Africa following Obama’s election to overturn the sanctions, Alexakis said.

“Think about that,” she said. “The defendant and Ben Israel were trying to change the laws of this country to the benefit of officials from a foreign government, without telling the U.S. government that they were working for those foreign officials.”

Showing jurors a photo of a smiling Turner and Ben Israel meeting with Mugabe, she pointed to an email in which she said Turner had written that if lobbying for Mugabe meant “breaking [President] Bush’s law, let it be.”

Representing Turner, lawyer Jim Tunick said state Sen. Donne Trotter, who’s also expected to be a prosecution witness, will give evidence that “exonerates” Turner. Trotter and other politicians who traveled to Zimbabwe supported Mugabe before they even met Turner, he said.

Turner was convinced nothing was wrong with lobbying on Mugabe’s behalf after he was told of a 2006 meeting on Capitol Hill between the Black Congressional Caucus and Mugabe’s finance minister, Gideon Gono, himself a target of the sanctions, Tunick said.

“At that meeting, Sen. Joseph Biden, the senator who sponsored the sanctions against Zimbabwe, shook Gideon Gono’s hand!” Tunick boomed.

Tunick also claimed that a $3.4 million “consulting agreement” allegedly signed by Ben Israel and a Zimbabwean senator was forged, pointing to differences in signatures on the Zimbabwean senator’s passport and the contract.

He said Turner was investigated only after state. Rep. Ken Dunkin sought a meeting with Obama’s advisers Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice and Robert Gibbs to discuss the sanctions in 2008. An assistant to Rahm Emanuel — soon to become Obama’s chief of staff — misrouted Dunkin’s message, which ended up at the Justice Department, Tunick said.

Dunkin is not expected to testify. But Trotter’s and Burris’ testimony — likely next week — could prompt fireworks. Turner’s lawyers have previously alleged that Trotter failed to declare $2,500 in cash he took from Ben Israel, and that Burris tried to shake down a business owner for a $250,000-a-year job while he was still a senator.

The trial is expected to take two weeks.

(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)