Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, who is one of nine Turks indicted in the sanctions-evasion scheme but the only one on trial, has stated on Monday that he has never conspired with Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab to evade US sanctions.
US prosecutors described Atilla, who faces six counts related to a scheme to launder staggering amounts of money to Iran in violation of US sanctions, as the architect of the Iranian operation, and Zarrab claimed Atilla devised the method to move cash through a series of shell companies using phantom shipments of goods.
However, the lawyers of Atilla has painted Zarrab as a liar looking to save his own skin. In a filing Monday, defence lawyers claimed a judge that a transcript of a jailhouse recording proves Zarrab perjured himself when he denied on the stand that he told his uncle that in the US, a suspect has to admit to something they didn’t do to get out of jail.
Last week, his lawyers took the risk of putting Atilla on the stand, and he strongly denied being part of the money-laundering plot.
“Did you ever conspire with Reza Zarrab to evade sanctions?” defence lawyer Cathy Fleming asked Atilla.
“Never,” he said.
Bolstering his testimony was documentation showing he was on a plane without phone service at the very time that Zarrab claims he was receiving directions to process an illegal transaction.
Atilla, whose defence is being underwritten by the government-owned bank, is back on the stand Monday, when federal prosecutors will get a chance to question him. Capping off his second day on the witness stand Atilla responded his lawyers questions.
“Mr. Atilla, did you conspire with Mr. Zarrab or anyone else to evade sanctions?” asked his lawyer Cathy Fleming.
“I did not conspire with anyone in any part of my life on that,” Atilla responded.
“Did you intend to break any laws?” she continued.
“Never,” he said.
After being asked if he was guilty of any of the crimes in the indictment, Atilla ended the direct examination with a flourish.
“I am not,” he said. “Absolutely not.”
According to a report by Courthouse News Service, over the past two days, Atilla has commented on a host of topics from the witness stand – including the routine transactions at Halkbank, US sanctions against Iran, his personal upbringing, and on Monday, even WikiLeaks.
According to the report, the anti-secrecy website came up during testimony as Atilla spoke about one file that told of his meeting with US Treasury officials, and Assistant US Attorney David Denton objected to disclosing the information that it contained.
“So just to be clear, what this refers to is release of classified information that was published by WikiLeaks,” Denton told US District Judge Jed Rakoff, out of earshot of the jury. “The information is still classified.”
Fleming said she did not know about its sensitivity because the information is public. “It’s in WikiLeaks, but all I would ask him about is that they were a little sensitive about information because it ended up in WikiLeaks,” she said.
The exact nature of the file remains unknown. “As far as I know, some information about United States information had leaked out,” Atilla said. “There were some details about our meetings.”
Meanwhile, Turkey’s Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül on Tuesday claimed that the trial of Atilla lacks a basis in law, saying it collapsed during the hearings. “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 Kanal24 TV.
Gül also underlined that the case had continued despite the fact that the previous prosecutor, Preet Bharara, was dismissed by US President Donald Trump. 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 Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Recalling that he demanded the case be brought to a close in a letter to US Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week, Gül said he has not yet received a response but that he would discuss the issue with Sessions on the phone. 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.
Zarrab and eight other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and three Halkbank executives, have been 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.
Zarrab was the prime suspect in a major corruption investigation in Turkey that became public in December 2013 and implicated the inner circle of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan. Zarrab was alleged to have paid Cabinet-level officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.
After Erdoğan cast the case as a coup attempt to overthrow his government orchestrated by his political enemies, several prosecutors were removed from the case, police were reassigned and the investigation against Zarrab was dropped in Turkey.
Zarrab was arrested in the US last year over evading sanctions on Iran, but after he became the prosecution’s top witness in the trial, former Halkbank deputy general manager Atilla is now the sole man in the dock accused of violating Iran sanctions, bribery and money laundering.