NY Jury Convicts Turkish Banker in Sanctions Case

In this courtroom sketch, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, center, listens to proceedings from the defense table on Nov. 28, 2017, in New York. Prosecutors claim that Atilla laundered Iranian oil money in violation of U.S. economic sanctions: a conspiracy involving bribes and kickbacks to high-level officials. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams)

MANHATTAN (CN) — Unveiling a verdict that will ripple across the globe, a New York jury convicted Mehmet Hakan Atilla on Wednesday of five charges related to multibillion-dollar bank trades out of Turkey that flouted sanctions against Iran.

Acquitting 47-year-old Atilla on just one count of money laundering, the jury delivered its verdict this afternoon on their fourth day of deliberations, which was interrupted for two weeks by Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

U.S. District Judge Richard welcomed the jurors back with a “Happy New Year” note hours before they quickly disposed of the case in 2018.

Atilla sat stoically at the defense table as the jury convicted him of violating Iran sanctions, bank fraud and conspiracy — five counts that could send him to a U.S. prison away from his family in Turkey for decades.

His wife cried in the courtroom gallery as the verdict was pronounced. Long after the jury had exited, she held her head in her hands, resting her elbows on the pew in front of her and wiping tears from her eyes.

Mehmet Atilla, right, testifies on Dec. 15, 2017, during his trial on corruption charges in New York. The Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions has been convicted by a jury in New York after a trial that sowed distrust between the two nations. Atilla was convicted of five counts, including conspiracy. He was acquitted of one money-laundering charge. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, in what may be the last statement of his tenure, waxed poetic about the federal justice system.

“Today, after a full, fair, and open trial, a unanimous jury convicted Hakan Atilla, a senior banker at Halkbank,” Kim said.

Turkey does not have a jury system, and the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International ranked it 75th in its annual corruption perceptions index.

“Foreign banks and bankers have a choice,” Kim added. “You could 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.”

It was Kim’s predecessor, Preet Bharara, who opened the multibillion-dollar sanctions case that would eventually snare Atilla and eight other men, a prosecution which the Turkish government rejected from its inception.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan depicted the U.S. prosecution as an attempted coup against his government because of its drumbeat of allegations of corruption and criminality involving senior officials of his administration.

Multiple witnesses testified at Atilla’s trial that Erdogan was a target of a corruption probe by Istanbul police in 2013, when he was still its prime minister. His then-economy minister Zafer Caglayan accepted bribes of between $45 million and $50 million, those witnesses said.

The star witness against Atilla was one-time Erdogan ally Reza Zarrab, a gold trader who became Turkey’s state enemy by cooperating with the U.S. government.

The geopolitical drama surrounding the case at times overshadowed the man on trial.

One of 13 managers of Turkey’s Halkbank, which is state run and the nation’s sixth largest bank, Atilla was arrested in the United States earlier this year at the tail end of a business trip.

Atilla vigorously maintained his innocence during the three-week trial, however, sharing his story with jurors for two days on the stand.

Where defense attorneys depicted Atilla as an unwitting civil servant at the center of a geopolitical drama, prosecutors cast him as the star, trusted with Halkbank’s most sensitive accounts related to Iran.

Taken from federal surveillance footage, this still image shows U.S. authorities frisking Mehmet Hakan Atilla after his arrest on March 27, 2017.

In closing arguments last month, defense attorney Victor Rocco cited Atilla’s voluntary travel here as the act of someone with a clean conscience. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Sidhardha Karamaju took another view.

“Hakan Atilla did not come to the United States because he thought he was innocent,” Karamaju scoffed. “No, backed by a powerful bank and an even more powerful government, Hakan Atilla came to the United States because he thought he was too big to jail. And he was wrong.”

Rocco, an attorney with Herrick Feinstein, characterized the prosecution’s case as something out of “The Twilight Zone” — not fitting for an “American courtroom.”

“Hakan Atilla is a blameless pawn,” and the man playing that chess piece was gold trader Reza Zarrab, said Rocco.

Outside the federal courthouse, Rocco was evasive at a press conference when asked whether his client received a fair trial.

“I think that trials are never perfect,” he said. “This trial is imperfect. That’s why we have appellate courts.”

Rocco confirmed that he will lodge that appeal after his client is sentenced on April 11.

Zarrab would have been tried alongside Atilla but opted instead to cooperate, pleading guilty to sanctions evasion and money laundering, among other felonies.

In this courtroom sketch from Nov. 29, 2017, in New York, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab testifies that he helped Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions with help from Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Considered the government’s star witness against Atilla, Zarrab admitted to having pledged his “economic jihad” to Iran in a letter to the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Defense attorney Rocco milked the phrase to impeach Zarrab’s credibility.

“That same master criminal who joined Iran’s economic jihad against the United States is now embraced by our government, as he tries to earn his way out of jail, earn his freedom by bartering the fate of another human being,” Rocco said. “And that human being is Hakan Atilla.”

Zarrab led a cushy lifestyle in Turkey, even marrying one of the country’s pop stars, but his testimony here about corruption at the highest levels of Turkey’s ruling AK Party led the Erdogan government to freeze his assets earlier this month.

Reza Zarrab, a 34-year-old gold trader who was charged in the U.S. for evading sanctions on Iran, is pictured in this Dec. 17, 2013, photo surrounded by the media at a courthouse in Istanbul. (Depo Photos via AP)

The jury heard support for Zarrab’s claims from Huseyin Korkmaz, a former Istanbul police officer who had been involved in a sweeping corruption probe that was primed to take down Zarrab and other Erdogan allies.

Korkmaz faced imprisonment over the 2013 investigation, which Erdogan labeled a “judicial coup.” He fled with his family instead, arriving in the United States with an encrypted flash drive he handed to U.S. prosecutors.

Brimming with emails, letters, wiretapped conversations, banking documents and surveillance photos, Korkmaz’s flash drive formed the heart of the U.S. government’s case.

For his cooperation, Korkmaz has received $50,000 to cover rent and other expenses.

The officer’s testimony implicated Erdogan and Erdogan’s son in the bribes, but Rocco cast Korkmaz as another unreliable witness.

“Huseyin Korkmaz has fled Turkey, leaving it in political turmoil, and he’s found asylum here in the United States,” Rocco said. “He, too, is being embraced by the government for taking the law in his own hands and stealing evidence that he says he developed during his investigation.”

Rocco also heaped blame on Atilla’s accused co-conspirators, including former Halkbank director Suleyman Aslan.

As with all of Atilla’s co-defendants, Aslan remains at large in a country unlikely to extradite him to the United States. Rocco depicted him as Zarrab’s right-hand man.

“They were like two young lovers,” Rocco quipped.

But prosecutors said the sanctions-busting scheme relied on Atilla.

“Reza Zarrab was the system, and Hakan Atilla was the method,” he said.

The U.S. attorney called Atilla’s conviction a warning to others who would dodge sanctions.

“If you lie repeatedly to U.S. Treasury officials and fabricate documents – all as part of a secret scheme to smuggle billions of dollars in Iranian money past the U.S. sanctions net – as Atilla did, then you should be prepared for the consequences,” Kim said.

As of Friday, however, Kim will not be the U.S. attorney to file those charges. He will be replaced by attorney Geoffrey Berman, a law partner of former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who once served as Zarrab’s legal counsel.

The geopolitical intrigue of Atilla’s trial is just as tangled in the United States as it is in Turkey.

Former President Barack Obama’s administrations doggedly resisted pressure from Turkey to throw out the case. But Trump, who has real estate in Istanbul, has been more receptive to Erdogan’s overtures.

Giuliani served as Trump’s top campaign aide before working on retainer for Zarrab, together with Republican former attorney general Michael Mukasey, another Trump ally, as his co-counsel.

Berman, the former Giuliani associate stepping in as the new U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York on Friday, will be heading the post-trial proceedings as Atilla starts his appeal.

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