Turkish bank executive Atilla denies links with Zarrab in first interrogation in US court

Lawyers of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the deputy general manager at Turkish state-owned Halkbank, who is on trial in a New York court case that has rocked relations between the United States and Turkey, have attempted to portray him as marginal to the billion-dollar conspiracy to evade sanctions on Iran.

According to a report by online news portal Ahval, in their second day of cross-examining the case’s star witness, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who has admitted organising the trade gold from Turkey for embargoed Iranian oil and gas, Atilla’s attorneys tried to show Zarrab was corrupt and dishonest, and dealt mainly with other bank officials to launder the proceeds of the scheme.

Defence lawyer Cathy Fleming attempted to show that banker Atilla was far from the main actor at Turkish state-owned bank. Levent Balkan, who oversaw international operations of Halkbank, was the key figure at the bank involved in the money laundering operations, the defence team said.

Zarrab told the jury he often chatted online and talked with Süleyman Aslan, the general manager at Halkbank, and said he and Aslan often met face-to-face, but admitted Atilla never asked for a face-to-face meeting. Zarrab admitted asking Aslan to have Balkan sacked as he said he was informing competitors of the activities.

Questioned by Fleming, Zarrab admitted to lying to Atilla in a recorded telephone conversation in April 2013 about “fake food” exports to Iran. Zarrab admitted deceiving Atilla, and said Atilla at that time had no idea the transactions were fake. Atilla, did not know that no food was being sent to Iran and that the fictitious trade was just a cover for payments in the oil-for-gold scheme, Zarrab conceded.

Fleming has also introduced a series of telephone calls showing that Zarrab relied more closely on other Halkbank executives, especially Levent Balkan. In one call with Zarrab, Balkan is heard saying he’d approve certain transactions, while in another Zarrab and Balkan agree to discuss something “face-to-face” rather than over the phone. Zarrab then testified there were no recorded conversations where he agreed to meet “face-to-face” with Atilla.

Zarrab also admitted that he told an employee to buy a watch for an official who was otherwise unwilling to accept a cash bribe. “Everyone who is inclined to be bribed has a price,” Zarrab told Fleming. The court was also played a recording of Zarrab talking to his assistant Abdullah Happani in which he referred to “chickenova”.

“Chickenova is a term that we used amongst the personnel of mine for any trade that was not real, and any trade that did not involve real goods, ma’am,” Zarrab told the court.

Fleming accused Zarrab of believing that everyone could be bribed.

“You have said and you believe that every person has a price, correct?” she asked.

“Everyone who’s inclined to be bribed has a price, that is correct, ma’am,” Zarrab replied.

Defence lawyers played recordings of Zarrab talking to his employees in China and directing them to bribe the banks there. In one of the recordings, Zarrab, who admitted on Tuesday to procuring prostitutes for others, said “one should pay the prostitutes and officials upfront”.

Zarrab was also asked about his life with his pop-star wife, Ebru Gündeş, and tabloid coverage of the pair. Zarrab famously gave her lavish gifts, including a racehorse named “Duty Free”.

“Ninety-nine percent of the news published in the media about us was bogus and fake news,” Zarrab said.

Meanwhile, FBI footage of the initial post-arrest briefing of Atilla, has been obtained and published by pro-government Hürriyet daily on Thursday. “This issue is nothing to do with me personally,” Atilla is seen telling FBI agents Jennifer McReynolds and Scott Giessler in the video on March 27, 2017, immediately after his arrest.

According to report, the footage starts with McReynolds and Giessler showing their IDs to Atilla, who speaks in English at the start of the interrogation but later switches to Turkish. When the agents tell him the reason for his arrest is because of his relations to Zarrab, Atilla repeatedly murmurs the words “unbelievable” and “impossible.”

“You were detained today because we have evidence about your involvement with Reza and his efforts to avoid US sanctions,” McReynolds tells Atilla at the beginning of the interrogation, to which the former bank executive replies by saying: “I don’t want to say anything.”

“I’m detained already,” Atilla says, before Giessler corrects him by saying that he is actually under arrest.

“There is a warrant for your arrest. You are under arrest for activities related to Reza Zarrab,” Giessler tells Atilla, who starts speaking Turkish after that point.

“What can I say? This sounds meaningless to me. They [the agents] need to explain. I have no personal relationship with Zarrab. He was dealing with the bank. It’s not related to me personally, it’s related to the bank,” Atilla says in Turkish.

“If it was related to me, what business would I have in the US? Do I look like a stupid [person]?” he asked.

According to the report, Atilla tells the agents that it was only the bank he worked for that did business with Reza Zarrab, who has admitted to being at the center of the scheme to undermine US sanctions on Iran. When the FBI agents tell Atilla that they have tapes of phone conversations between him and Zarrab, Atilla says: “Do your best. Do whatever you can,” he said. “I am a government functionary. So there’s a high chance they will want to follow this case.”

Atilla also appeared to lament the loss of business his arrest would entail. “We have $500 million of lending business,” he said. “This will destroy everything.”

The footage of the interrogation then shows Atilla being searched by an FBI agent and the former executive continues to deny having any links to Zarrab.

Zarrab was arrested in the US last year but as he became the prosecution’s top witness in the trial, Atilla is now the sole man in the dock accused of violating sanctions, bribery and money laundering. Prosecutors have charged nine people in the case with conspiring to help Iran evade sanctions, but only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by US authorities.

Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the trial is being conducted by a “virtual court” and is a plot to undermine his country politically and economically. His spokesman İbrahim Kalın has also repeated the same argument on Wednesday and claimed that US District Judge Richard Berman, who is presently hearing a controversial sanctions-busting case, had links to the Gülen movement.

“The issue has gone beyond a legal case, it has become a political case,” Kalın was quoted by Reuters as saying about the trial. “It is known that the judge has participated in events upon Gülen’s invitation,” Kalın claimed.

Judge Berman is hearing the trial against a former executive at Turkish state lender Halkbank who is accused of helping Iran to evade US sanctions.

The case’s star witness, Zarrab, has so far linked the scheme to senior officials in the Turkish government including Erdoğan himself.

Reuters cited Turkish newspapers which said Judge Berman attended a legal symposium in Istanbul in 2014. Berman earlier said he was “one of five US legal experts who spoke at the symposium and moderated a panel discussion on independent and effective judiciary,” according to Reuters.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami as he arrived for a family holiday in Disney World in March 2016, but has pleaded guilty and agreed to provide full disclosure of his involvement in the alleged crimes in the expectation of receiving a shorter sentence than the decades he would likely otherwise spend in jail had he fought the case and lost.

Prosecutors have also charged both Halkbank’s former General Manager Süleymean Aslan and his deputy Levent Balkan with involvement in the scheme, as well as a Turkish former economy minister, but they are outside US custody.

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 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. Erdoğan and his government launched an all-out war against the Gülen movement following the corruption operations of December 2013.

Erdoğan also accuses the Gülen movement of masterminding a failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016. Despite the movement strongly denying involvement in the failed coup, Erdoğan launched a witch-hunt campaign targeting the alleged members of the movement following the failed coup.

Turkey has suspended or dismissed more than 150,000 judges, teachers, police and civil servants since July 15. Turkey’s Justice Ministry announced on July 13 that 50,510 people have been arrested and 169,013 have been the subject of legal proceedings on coup charges since the failed coup.

The government has also seized at least 1,068 companies and 4,888 properties as part of the witch-hunt targeting the Gülen movement.

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