Turkey’s Zarrab: I got $150 mln from Iran sanctions plot, paid $45K bribe to US prison guard

Reza Zarrab, the government’s star witness in a trial involving a billion-dollar conspiracy to smuggle gold for oil in violation of United States sanctions on Iran, testified on Tuesday that he had made huge sums of money in the scheme — but he could not recall the precise amount. “I don’t remember exactly but it could be $100 million,” Zarrab, who helped orchestrate the scheme, told the jury through an interpreter. “Maybe more than that. Maybe $150 million,” said he, according to a report by the New York Times on Wednesday.

Zarrab’s testimony came on his 5th day on the witness stand in Federal District Court in Manhattan as he was cross-examined by a lawyer for Halkbank’s Deputy General Manager, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who is on trial for his alleged involvement in the sanctions evasion.

Zarrab who seemed somewhat nervous during the cross-examination acknowledged that he agreed to give American officials sufficient information and evidence to start investigation into other persons involved in the scheme as a part of his plea deal, online news portal Ahval reported.

According to this information, Zarrab needs to provide enough information and documents to help indict other persons involved in the scheme, not only during his courtroom testimony but also during and after the trial with the FBI and American prosecutors per his plea agreement. Zarrab said during his cross-examination that co-operating by giving information and evidence was a pre-condition for the plea deal and his 5K-1 letter.

Zarrab denied on Tuesday that he was partners with Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani, also known as the head of the sanction-evasion scheme in Iran. He claimed that Zanjani was only one of the Iranians he was doing business with Iran and refused the claim that Zanjani’s money was in his bank accounts in Turkey. Despite acknowledging that he helped Zanjani transfer and sell 1,5 tons of gold from Ghana, Zarrab told the defence lawyer that this relationship was limited to a business dealings like other Iranians.

The jury had already been told that Zarrab was caught bribing a guard, but on Tuesday they also learned how much was paid and that Zarrab’s Turkish lawyer served as the go-between. Zarrab also said that he smoked synthetic marijuana while in prison.

According to the report by NYT, on Tuesday, during his cross-examination, Zarrab offered new details about an unrelated charge to which he also pleaded guilty — bribing a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where he was held, in return for contraband like alcohol and for the use of the guard’s cellphone.

Zarrab has also revealed Tuesday that the bribe was about $45,000, and said the payment had been arranged by a lawyer from Turkey who was representing him and was in New York at the time. Zarrab did not identify the lawyer; one of his New York attorneys, Robert J. Anello, declined to comment.

On Tuesday, he was asked about his hiring of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Michael Mukasey, the former US attorney general, to find a “political” resolution after prosecutors initially rebuffed his bid for a cooperation agreement, reported NBC News.

It was previously known that Giuliani and Mukasey traveled to Turkey and met with officials on Zarrab’s behalf after he was arrested in Miami on his way to Disney World in March 2016. Zarrab indicated that they were trying to work out some kind of US-Turkish prisoner exchange for his freedom.

Zarrab revealed on Tuesday that his lawyers first met with prosecutors as early as the summer of 2016 to discuss the possibility of his cooperating with the government, but the idea went nowhere. However, in August 2017, after Atilla was arrested on a business trip to the US, prosecutors restarted talks. He and his lawyers met with the government, leading to about a dozen sessions with prosecutors and FBI agents, after which the government agreed to the cooperation deal, the NYT reported.

“Within the bounds of law, they (Giuliani and Mukasey) did make efforts,” he said in response to a question from Cathy Fleming, a lawyer for Halkbank’s Atilla.

“In fact, you hired Rudy Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey as your attorneys in the United States to try to work out a solution for you in Turkey, correct?” Fleming asked.

“That is correct, ma’am,” Zarrab said and added “Within the bounds of law, they did make efforts.”

“You believed this was going to work for a year, correct?” Atilla’s defense lawyer Cathy Fleming asked Zarrab.

“I thought it may become possible,” Zarrab said.

Fleming pressed him: “And in fact you are furious with people in Turkey that it did not work. Is that true?”

Zarrab denied it. “I don’t have any anger towards anyone, ma’am,” he said through a translator.

In her cross-examination, Fleming has also underscored that Zarrab had lied to FBI agents when he was first arrested and will likely get a reduced sentence for testifying against Atilla.

“You have very much wanted to be out of jail since you were arrested?” she asked.

“That is absolutely correct,” Zarrab said, conceding that he has discussed the possibility of being freed on bail after the trial is over but before he is sentenced.

According to Ahval’s report, Zarrab has also acknowledged that his first statement in Miami was not entirely truthful and admitted that part of the plea agreement with the prosecutor’s office was that he should ‘not lie.’

NBC News reported that Atilla’s lawyers say that he was a dupe in the money-laundering scheme and that the real villains are Zarrab and others named in the indictment who are not on trial because they are still in Turkey.

Atilla’s lawyer noted that Zarrab met with the defendant Atilla less than a handful of times. Zarrab corrected him, saying that they met about ten times, but also admitted that their relationship was not very warm. It was also established that Atilla was in a close working relationship with Zarrab during the alleged illegal currency trading period in Halkbank and that Zarrab did not offer, nor did Atilla demand any bribes from him. Zarrab has also said he didn’t have him listed in his phone contacts.

By contrast, Zarrab had previously said he paid $60 million in bribes to Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, the former economic minister of Turkey, and court records show that he was in close contact with the head of Halkbank, Atilla’s boss Süleyman Aslan.

In the most dramatic moment of the trial, Zarrab had implicated Turkish autocratic President Recep Erdoğan in the sanctions-evasion operation. Erdoğan, who asked both the former US President Barack Obama and US President Donald Trump administrations to drop the case, denies wrongdoing and says the trial is a conspiracy by the US to weaken Turkey.

Turkish authorities, meanwhile, have begun tightening the screws against Zarrab since the trial started, detaining 17 of his associates and announcing plans to seize his assets, according to the state-run news agency.

Zarrab, who is married to a famous Turkish singer, is fabulously wealthy, according to court documents, which detailed how he was building a yacht longer than a football field with three personal submersibles. Fleming also asked Zarrab if his chauffeur was stopped at the Turkish border with $150 million in cash in 2007, which he denied.

Zarrab has also denied laundering money in Russia before 2010 Russia and mainly the $150 million that was reported in the media previously. Zarrab told that his driver was not arrested in Russian customs as reported neither at Turkish customs for alleged money laundering scheme.

Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian citizen who was arrested on a 2016 family trip to Disney World, testified last week that in 2012, Turkish President Erdoğan, then Turkey’s prime minister, personally ordered that two Turkish banks be allowed to participate in the scheme. Zarrab also testified that he had paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the country’s then economy minister, Zafer Çağlayan.

Before Zarrab secretly pleaded guilty on Oct. 26 to conspiring in the sanctions scheme, he was to have been tried along with Atilla. His plea and cooperation agreement were revealed last week when the trial began.

Zarrab’s testimony continued to send political tremors through Turkey. Erdoğan used his weekly address to parliamentarians from his Justice and Development Party on Tuesday to make a heated attack against the United States. He pointed to not just the trial, but also American support for Kurdish insurgents in Syria and United States policy in Israel.

“It is now understood that the US has a plan against us,” Erdoğan told AKP deputies. “It is obvious that this trial is brought up as a tool to blackmail us to give up our claims in the region.” Erdoğan claimed that the sanctions case indictment says “conspiracy.” “Yes, there is conspiracy — but against Turkey,” he said.

As he has repeatedly in the past, he blamed followers of the US-based Turkish-Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. And in a warning to opponents at home, Erdoğan said: “Whoever takes the trial in America as a matter of domestic politics is a collaborator in the treachery.”

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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