Judge denies mistrial request, criticizes ‘conspiracy theory’ floated in Atilla trial

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Reza Zarrab (L), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (C) and Mehmet Hakan Atilla

A New York federal judge has denied a request for a mistrial in the proceedings against a Turkish banker charged with participating in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran and criticized the defense for bringing up what he called “an illogical foreign conspiracy theory” in court.

US District Judge Richard Berman said it was “unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional” for defense attorneys to question a witness in the trial of banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla about his possible links to Fethullah Gülen, a US-based Turkish Islamic scholar accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating a failed coup last year in Turkey.

“The defense,” the judge said, “appears quite willing to join a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory bandwagon, which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom,” The New York Times reported.

Berman was referring to the cross-examination of witness for the prosecution Hüseyin Korkmaz, a former Turkish police officer who fled Turkey last year with evidence from a 2013 Turkish corruption investigation that he had supervised, which he later gave to US authorities.

Turkish officials had shut down the 2013 police investigation, which threatened to implicate then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his close circle, and jailed Korkmaz, who was subsequently released.

In one exchange during the cross-examination that the judge cited critically, defense lawyer Todd Harrison noted that Korkmaz had been freed from prison after a Turkish judge received a letter from Gülen asking that Atilla and others be released.

In response, Korkmaz said that was “illogical” and denied that he knew either Gülen or the Turkish judge.

Judge Berman also cited questions in which he said Harrison appeared to be arguing that Korkmaz’s police promotions were mostly the result of “alleged Gülenist backing.”

Turkey’s President Erdoğan has called the American charges a fabrication and has blamed the influence of followers of Turkish Islamic cleric Gülen for the case.

The judge said the defense’s “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.”

Atilla testified in his own defense on Friday, a decision his lawyers announced late on Thursday. Under questioning by one of his attorneys, Atilla denied conspiring with Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader cooperating with authorities due to a plea deal, to evade US sanctions on Iran and said he did not intend to defraud any banks.

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