Jury finds Turkey’s Atilla guilty on 5 counts in US sanctions evasion scheme

The jury in the trial of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of Turkey’s Halkbank charged with participating in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran, in US federal court on Wednesday reached a verdict of guilty on five counts, including bank fraud and conspiracy, and not guilty on one count of money laundering.

Atilla and Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and seven other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and two additional Halkbank executives, were charged with engaging in transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade US sanctions.

Only Zarrab and Atilla are currently in US custody after separately being arrested upon trying to enter the United States in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

Prosecutors portrayed Atilla as a sanctions expert who designed the complex scheme and then lied to US Treasury Department officials about it. He lied again, they argued, when he testified in his own defense at the trial, The New York Times reported.

“Why did Mr. Atilla tell all those lies?” Michael D. Lockard, a federal prosecutor, said in a closing argument. “To help his bank, to help his bank’s customers — customers like Mr. Zarrab, customers like the government of Iran, the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil company. Lies that he told to keep his bank from being blacklisted from the American financial system.”

Atilla denied he had conspired with Zarrab or that he had been involved in any other wrongdoing.

Joon Kim, the acting US Attorney in Manhattan, issued a statement after the verdict was read. “Today, after a full, fair and open trial, a unanimous jury convicted Hakan Atilla, a senior banker at Half Bank. Along with the prior guilty plea of Reza Zarrab, two men at the heart of this massive and brazen scheme that blew a billion-dollar hole in the Iran sanctions scheme now stand convicted of serious federal crimes. Foreign banks and bankers have a choice: you can choose willfully to help Iran and other sanctioned nations evade U.S. law, or you can choose to be part of the international banking community transacting in U.S. dollars. But you can’t do both. …”

Zarrab made a plea deal with prosecutors and has served as the key witness in Atilla’s trial.

Judge Richard Berman had denied two defense requests for a mistrial, writing in his last decision that “Atilla has received a thoroughly fair and transparent trial.”

Zarrab testified in New York federal court in early December that he had bribed Turkey’s former economy minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, in a billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran.

Zarrab said that Turkey’s then-prime minister and current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, personally authorized the involvement of Turkish banks in the scheme.

Zarrab also said he made payments to secure his release in February 2014 and that those payments were partly bribes.

The Turkish government seized the assets of Zarrab and his relatives following his testimony in the US court.

TURKISH AUTHORITIES SLAM US COURT VERDICT ON HALKBANK’S ATİLLA

The US court’s verdict finding Atilla guilty of helping Iran evade US sanctions is a “scandalous decision of a scandalous case,” Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın claimed on Thursday. Speaking at a news conference at the presidential complex, Kalın claimed that the US court aimed to intervene in Turkey’s internal affairs through the case.

“This is a scandalous decision of a scandalous case. It is loud and clear that this case is a conspiracy aimed at complicating Turkey’s internal politics and intervening in Turkey’s internal affairs,” he said.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has also stated on Thursday that the US court verdict finding Atilla guilty of helping Iran evade US sanctions is “unjust and unfortunate.” “The US court, in a process in which Turkey’s internal affairs were discussed based on a fictional setup and realized based on fake and so-called ‘evidence’ open to political abuse, has intervened in Turkey’s domestic affairs in an unprecedented way,” claimed the statement released by Turkish Foreign Ministry.

Claiming that the opportunity was given to several alleged members of Gülen movement to make unrealistic claims and present fake evidence via material and logistical support by the US has destroyed the seriousness and credibility of the court process, the statement said that  “The correction of this decision that has turned into a legal shame is our biggest wish.”

Another official statement regarding the verdict came from Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ. “The jury’s verdict on Atilla and the sentence he will be subjected to is not covered by Turkish law,” Bozdağ said on his Twitter account on Thursday. “Turkey is an independent sovereign state. Another country cannot try Turkey or its departments,” Bozdağ added. Saying the case is a “plot” and was not a fair trial, Bozdağ also claimed the case is politically-motivated.

After the verdict was announced, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said the trial was based on “evidence that was fake and open to political exploitation.” It also said the trial amounted to “interference in Turkey’s internal affairs,” adding that “the involvement of Gülen-linked figures” in the court proceedings “undermined the credibility of trial.”

“We evaluate the case as an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty,” claimed Turkish Justice Minister Abdülhamit Gül and added “The decision is not legal.” “In terms both of the implementation of a situation stemming from the United States’ domestic law on a foreign national, in terms of jurisdiction and in terms of whether the action constituted a crime, there is clear doubt over the case,” Gül alleged.

Moreover, Erdoğan’s henchmen Fuat Uğur and Cem Küçük said on pro-government news channel TGRT that if the case results in fines for Turkish banks, then these should be paid for by confiscating more property belonging to members of the Gülen movement.

Hüseyin Korkmaz, a former İstanbul police officer who testified at the New York trial of Atilla, called Erdoğan the “No. 1” target in a group that also included Çağlayan, and Süleyman Aslan, a former chief executive at Halkbank, a large Turkish state-owned bank that was central to the sanction-busting scheme.

Police notes of the Dec. 17 operations show that Zarrab personally talked with Erdoğan on April 13, 2013 and asked for an official police guard. Erdoğan and his Cabinet approved it immediately.

A phone call and a video in the Dec.17 file show that Zarrab in July 2013 sent an unspecified amount of money to the Service for Youth and Education Foundation of Turkey (TÜRGEV), run by Bilal Erdoğan, Erdoğan’s son. Turkey issued detention warrants for six family members of Korkmaz following his testimony.

HALKBANK CLAIMS HAS NOT BEEN A PARTY TO IRAN SANCTIONS CASE

Meanwhile, Halkbank has claimed on Thursday that it has not been a party to US case of Turkish banker Atilla nor is there administrative or financial decision taken against bank by court. Halkbank also said that Atilla has right to appeal against US court decision, defending that the bank always adheres sensitively to national and international regulations in all its business and transactions.

Halkbank added that puts utmost effort to improve its compliance policy further within the framework of international standards, saying that the bank would always maintain its policy of transparency in transactions and compliance to international regulations decisively. Halkbank highlighted that foreign trade transactions and money transfers carried out in an open and transparent manner.

The statement made by Halkbank continued as follow: “No mechanism, method or system other than those in the existing regulations and those known to and followed by all other banks in foreign trade practices have been used by our Bank when offering banking services. The foreign trade transactions and money transfers are carried out in an open and transparent manner which can be monitored by the related authorities on the system. Our Bank is always going to maintain its policy of transparency in transactions and compliance to international regulations decisively.

“We kindly bring to the public attention that our Bank, which has been providing services to the economy of our country for 80 years, is continuing its operations, and will to do so in the future, in accordance with national and international regulations in a strong, reliable and uninterrupted manner as it did in the past.”

Turkish autocratic President Erdoğan said on Dec. 29, 2017 that Atilla was not guilty and that he thought the jury in the New York court would decide similarly.

“As of today, I think that it can be seen that Hakan Atilla is not guilty. I think the jury has also seen that,” Erdoğan told journalists on his plane while returning from an Africa tour.

“I think the proceedings involving Hakan Atilla will end as our bank [Halkbank] expects. Our expectation is the same,” added Erdoğan.

Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said earlier in December that the trial of Atilla lacked a basis in law.

“When you look at the cross-examination and all phases of the trial, for the time being the case has collapsed. It has no legal validity,” Gül told Kanal 24 TV.

The Turkish minister claimed that both the prosecutor and the judge were linked to the faith-based Gülen movement, declared as a major enemy by President Erdoğan and accused by him of masterminding a failed coup in 2016.

Gül said if a crime is committed in Turkey, it should be tried by Turkish courts. “Turkish courts have already ruled on this issue,” he added. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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