US judge denies second mistrial request in Atilla trial on Iran sanctions case

A New York federal judge has denied a second request for a mistrial in the proceedings against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of Turkey’s Halkbank charged with participating in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran, saying the defendant has received a fair and transparent trial.

Atilla’s lawyers had objected to a question prosecutors posed to their client on cross-examination related to a Turkish regulator’s report on the role of Halkbank in the scheme. US District Judge Richard Berman, in his decision against the mistrial, noted that he had directed that the question not be answered and stricken from the record.

“Atilla has received a thoroughly fair and transparent trial,” he wrote.

Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and eight other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and three Halkbank executives, among them Atilla, 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.

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

Judge Berman had previously denied a request for a mistrial for bringing up what he called “an illogical foreign conspiracy theory” in court.

He said it was “unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional” for defense attorneys to question another witness about his possible links to Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish Islamic scholar accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating a failed coup last year in Turkey.

“The defense,” the judge said, “appears quite willing to join a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory bandwagon, which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom,” The New York Times reported.

The jury, which was dismissed for the holidays, will resume deliberations on Wednesday.

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.

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. (turkishminute.com)

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