US federal judge Richard M. Berman has granted a request from Turkey’s Halkbank Deputy General Manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who was arrested in New York City in late March as part of an investigation into the violation of US sanctions on Iran, to videotape depositions of four Halkbank co-workers who refuse to travel to the US to testify, the Diken news website reported on Thursday.
According to the report the depositions will be taken before Atilla’s trial starts on Nov. 27.
Atilla is accused of conspiring with Reza Zarrab, a Turkish Iranian gold trader, to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal transactions through US banks on behalf of Iran’s government and other entities in that country.
A total of nine people have been charged in the case, including former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, although only Zarrab and Atilla are in custody in New York.
US prosecutors claim that Zarrab invoked ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in order to advance the then-prime minister’s business interests, Reuters reported on Nov. 3.
In a filing with the US District Court in Manhattan, prosecutors said, “the government anticipates that the evidence introduced at trial will show that Turkish government and banking officials were integral to the sanctions evasion scheme.”
The filing detailed recorded phone conversations and documents that according to prosecutors suggest Zarrab was looking out for Erdoğan’s interests.
Erdoğan has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but on Oct. 24 the Turkish president said the arrest of Zarrab and Atilla was an operation deliberately targeting Turkey, adding: “They [US authorities] are driving him [Zarrab] into a corner, trying to make him an informer by saying, ‘If you mention these names, it [your prison sentence] will be this long, if you mention those names it will be that long’.”
“We are following this. We know how to set the world on fire when all those issues are done. We will tell all,” he said.
The allegations were made on the same day Atilla’s lawyers said Zarrab has “essentially not participated” in the case and that Atilla might be the only defendant appearing at trial, raising speculation that Zarrab could be preparing to plead guilty plea or cooperate, or that the charges against him may change.
Zarrab was the prime suspect in a major corruption investigation in Turkey that became public in December 2013 in which with others from the inner circle of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan for having paid Cabinet-level officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.
After Erdoğan cast the case as a coup attempt to overthrow his government orchestrated by his political enemies, several prosecutors were removed from the case, police were reassigned and the investigation against Zarrab was dropped.