Turkish Banker on Trial in Shadows of Gold Trader Witness

MANHATTAN (CN) –  During the closely watched testimony of gold trader Reza Zarrab, who has implicated Turkey’s president and ministers in a multibillion-dollar money laundering scheme, an important person has been overshadowed: the man on trial.

In this courtroom sketch, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton points at defendant Mehmet Hakan Atilla, right, during opening arguments of trial on Nov. 28, 2017, in New York federal court. Denton said Atilla, deputy CEO of Halkbank, was the architect of a “massively successful” scheme to dupe U.S. banks into letting Iran move money around the world. U.S. District Judge Richard Berman is seated at the bench, background left. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a 47-year-old manager at the state-run Halkbank, has been described by prosecutors as the “architect” of a sophisticated system of funneling Iranian money through bogus gold trades and phony food aid.

“In order to conduct the economic jihad, Iran didn’t need soldiers,” Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton told a jury here when trial kicked off last month.

“Iran needed a banker,” he added.

For two days, Atilla’s attorney Cathy Fleming has sought to undermine that narrative during detailed cross-examination of Zarrab, who acknowledged to the jury on Wednesday that he left Atilla out of the loop for particularly sensitive transactions.

“I went to individuals that were much higher than Mr. Hakan Atilla, ma’am,” Zarrab told Fleming at the end of trial on Wednesday.

The remark capped off questioning by Fleming calibrated to depict Atilla as a low-ranking Turkish civil servant, not particularly plugged into a tale of geopolitical intrigue in which he should have been cast as a footnote — not the central character.

On Tuesday, Zarrab acknowledged that Atilla never solicited nor received a bribe from him.

“That is correct; Mr. Hakan Atilla has never requested any money from me, ever,” Zarrab said at the time.

Zarrab previously testified to paying between “45 and 50 million” euros to ex-Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan and $100,000 to the son of former Turkish Minister of the Interior Muammer Guler.

The day after Zarrab’s testimony that then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered billions in transactions to Iran, prosecutors in Turkey seized Zarrab and his family’s assets.

Also captivating Turkey is Zarrab’s celebrity: His wife Ebru Gundes is a Turkish singer whose glamorous life compounded media focus on the couple.

When asked about press coverage of Gundes’ wedding ring, Zarrab replied: “Since about 99 percent of the news that were published in the media about us and what I may have given to my wife were all bogus and false news, I don’t know which one you might be referring to here.”

“But it is true that the media published a lot of news about us,” the 34-year-old playboy added.

Zarrab’s brother Mohammad is one of several co-defendants still at large.

The jury heard a phone call at one point between Zarrab and his uncle — who is not charged — from April 2013.

During the conversation, translated to English from Azerbaijani, Zarrab said his uncle spoke to him about trying to obtain customs documents from Dubai.

“It’s the bill of lading, ma’am, that’s what I’m referring to,” Zarrab said, using the shipping jargon for a document acknowledging receipt of cargo.

Zarrab’s cross-examination will enter its third day on Thursday.

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