Turkish Banker’s Convictions Upheld in Sanctions Case

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

MANHATTAN (CN) – Prosecutors presented a strong enough case to convict Turkish banker Hakan Atilla of flouting sanctions against Iran through a series of multibillion-dollar bank trades, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

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 early last year at the tail end of a business trip.

Though Atilla vigorously maintained his innocence during the three-week trial, sharing his story with jurors for two days on the stand, he filed a motion before mounting that defense for a judgment of acquittal.

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. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

Opting not to rule on that motion at the time, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman rejected it Wednesday, over a month after the jury found 47-year-old Atilla guilty of five counts.

Berman’s 25-page ruling says the prosecution presented a strong-enough case to convict Atilla of all six counts, even the money-laundering charge of which he was acquitted.

“The court finds that the evidence presented was clearly sufficient for a reasonable jury to find Atilla’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt with respect to each element of the six (6) crimes with which Atilla was charged,” he wrote.

Atilla’s attorneys Victor Rocco and Cathy Fleming declined to comment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman included this diagram drawn by Reza Zarrab to his Feb. 7 ruling upholding the convictions of Turkish banker Hakan Atilla.

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.

 

The star witness against Atilla was Reza Zarrab, a gold trader and former ally of Turkish President Recep Erdogan whose cooperation with the U.S. government has since made him an enemy of the Turkish state.

Two diagrams that Zarrab drew for the jury mapping out the multibillion dollar sanctions-evasion schemes are attached to Berman’s ruling.

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.

Atilla’s defense team tried in vain at the trial to impeach Zarrab’s testimoney by playing up his admission about having pledged “economic jihad” to Iran in a letter to the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman included this diagram drawn by Reza Zarrab to his Feb. 7 ruling upholding the convictions of Turkish banker Hakan Atilla.

Another witness who supported Zarrab’s claims was former Istanbul police officer Huseyin Korkmaz, 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.

Atilla was indicted alongside Zarrab and many other 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.

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