US Takes Turn at Turk Accused 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. A former manager at the Turkish state-run bank Halkbank, Atilla is being tried in New York over transactions that flouted sanctions against Iran.

MANHATTAN (CN) – Capping off his second day on the witness stand, a Turkish banker opened himself to questioning by a U.S. prosecutor after vehemently denying facilitating billions of dollars in illicit trades.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, faces six counts related to an alleged scheme to launder staggering amounts of money to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Together with Iranian-born tycoon Reza Zarrab, prosecutors say, Atilla evaded these regulations through fake gold trades and sham food transactions.

Atilla’s attorney Cathy Fleming confronted the allegations head on before leaving her client within the cross-hairs of a U.S. attorney’s cross-examination.

“Mr. Atilla, did you conspire with Mr. Zarrab or anyone else to evade sanctions?” Fleming asked.

“I did not conspire with anyone in any part of my life on that,” Atilla responded.

“Did you intend to break any laws?” she continued.

“Never,” he said.

After being asked if he was guilty of any of the crimes in the indictment, Atilla ended the direct examination with a flourish.

“I am not,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Over the past two days, Atilla has commented on a host of topics from the witness stand – including the routine transactions at Halkbank, U.S. sanctions against Iran, his personal upbringing, and on Monday, even WikiLeaks.

The anti-secrecy website came up during testimony as Atilla spoke about one file that told of his meeting with U.S. Treasury officials, and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Denton objected to disclosing the information that it contained.

“So just to be clear, what this refers to is release of classified information that was published by WikiLeaks,” Denton told U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff, out of earshot of the jury. “The information is still classified.”

Fleming said she did not know about its sensitivity because the information is public.

“It’s in WikiLeaks, but all I would ask him about is that they were a little sensitive about information because it ended up in WikiLeaks,” she said.

The exact nature of the file remains unknown.

“As far as I know, some information about United States information had leaked out,” Atilla said. “There were some details about our meetings.”

Meanwhile in Turkey, the mere existence of the Atilla case resembles something like a massive data avalanche, gripping much of the nation engaging with the trial on Twitter.

Particularly captivating to many Turks are revelations related to a 2013 corruption scandal that snared many allies of then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who later became the country’s president.

The Turkish government has since clamped down on investigative journalism on the subject, until the public trial in New York brought forward a rush of new information about alleged bribes involving Erdogan’s inner circle. These include alleged payments of “45 to 50 million” euros to ex-economy minister Zafer Caglayan and hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Turkish interior minister Muammer Guler.

One recent witness, ex-Istanbul police officer Huseyin Korkmaz, testified an investigation traced money directly to the Erdogan family, including the president and his son Bilal Erdogan.

Denton, the prosecutor, kicked off cross-examination late in the day. It will continue in earnest on Tuesday, to be followed by closing arguments.

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