MANHATTAN (CN) – Described by U.S. prosecutors as the “architect” of a multibillion-dollar money laundering scheme, a Turkish banker had a chance to show a jury his softer side on Friday.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a 47-year-old former manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, wept on the witness stand as he spoke about seeing his son for only two hours since his arrest on March 27 of this year on suspicion of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran.
“Yes, I’ve seen him once,” he said, straining to get out the words before wiping his eyes with a tissue.
That son, a university student studying international relations, is the child of his 22-year marriage to his college sweetheart.
“He’s a smart student,” Atilla said of his son.
Over the course of Atilla’s trial, the jury has heard his name listed among the company of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several of his ministers.
Multiple witnesses have accused Erdogan and his allies of corruption, including through payments of “45 to 50 million” euros to ex-economy minister Zafer Caglayan and hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Turkish Minister of the Interior Muammer Guler. The politicians allegedly looked away from what they knew to be illicit transactions in turn.
By contrast, Atilla denied taking a penny in connection to these schemes, and nobody has accused him of doing so.
“Mr. Atilla, did you ever take a bribe from Reza Zarrab?” Atilla’s attorney Cathy Fleming asked, referencing the 34-year-old gold trader who was the government’s star witness earlier in the trial.
“Never,” Atilla responded.
“Did you ever ask for a bribe?” she pressed.
“Never,” he said again.
Humanizing her embattled client, Fleming led him through a series of questions about his family, his parents, his middle-class upbringing, his compulsory Turkish military service and even his hobbies and vacations.
“I grew up in Ankara, in Turkey, the capital,” Atilla said. “I’m coming from a modest family. My parents work for the state, just a normal mid-range, mid-income. My parents worked at youth and sports ministry. They served for the state for 25 to 30 years, and then they retired.”
At one point, Fleming introduced a family photo into evidence.
Clean shaven and dressed in a V-neck sweater with a button-down shirt open at the collar, Atilla completed the picture that his attorneys painted of him during opening arguments — one of a humble bureaucrat, living on a government salary before finding himself at the center of a geopolitical hurricane.
Turkey has lashed out at U.S. prosecutors for pursuing this trial: Erdogan repeatedly lobbied for the release of Zarrab, a former ally of the Turkish president who is married to a pop star wife.
Erdogan recently labeled the U.S. court case an attempted coup d’etat against him, as witness after witness connected his top officials to multimillion dollar bribes and staggering illicit transactions.
Turkish prosecutors have taken retaliatory actions against two of the star U.S. government witnesses: Zarrab and Huseyin Korkmaz, a former Istanbul police officer who smuggled evidence out of his country implicating Erdogan and others.
Korkmaz did not have such bombshells against Atilla, whose attorneys call him a marginal figure in the international drama.
Asked if he conducted “economic jihad” for Iran, as prosecutors allege, Atilla replied: “I first heard of such a thing in here.”
Though self-taught in English, Atilla testified in Turkish through a translator. Video footage of his arrest shown to the jury depicts him switching back and forth between those two languages.
His interview with FBI agents begins in English before his arrest, when he reverted to his native Turkish.
Atilla’s attorneys previously moved for a mistrial because they contend the blockbuster evidence against Turkish leaders tars their client with the same brush.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman disagreed, finding that the contrast between Atilla and the other accused Turks was apparent in the testimony of Korkmaz.
“Ironically, perhaps,” Berman said, Korkmaz’s testimony “seems helpful to Mr. Atilla’s defense. Korkmaz testified about Mr. Atilla’s non-involvement in the investigation that he, Korkmaz, undertook.”
Defense attorneys pursued what, to Berman, was a puzzling campaign to discredit Korkmaz by associating him with a religious group that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Atilla’s other attorney Todd Harrison accused Korkmaz of ties to Gulenism, followers of a U.S.-based religious figure whom Erdogan blamed for multiple coup attempts.
Citing reports from the largely state-controlled Turkish media, consistently ranked one of the least-free in terms of press freedom, Harrison pursued a string of questions depicting Korkmaz as in the thrall of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is considered a state enemy in Turkey.
“While some of the defense team appear not to appreciate fully aspects of Mr. Korkmaz’s testimony as I’ve just described, the defense overall appears quite willing to join a rather farfetched conspiracy theory bandwagon which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom,” Berman said.
The judge added later: “I note that the defense’s at best illogical foreign conspiracy theory has no foundation in the record, and is, in reality, unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional, as a diversion from the issues to be decided in this case.
Harrison, from the New York-based firm of McDermott, Will & Emery, defended his conduct in a phone interview.
“I disagree and I think it was legitimate cross-examination,” he said.
His client will return to the witness stand when trial resumes on Monday.