In a wide-ranging interview with Guy Johnson of Bloomberg TV in London on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said if Turkish Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla, currently awaiting sentencing in New York federal court for Iran sanctions evasion, were to be declared a criminal, “that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.”
Atilla and Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and seven other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and two additional Halkbank executives, were charged with engaging in transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade US sanctions.
Atilla was convicted by a Manhattan jury in January of conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran, while Zarrab agreed to a plea bargain and was a star witness for the prosecution.
Repeatedly questioned about possible negotiations regarding a fine for Halkbank and if Turkey would pay such a fine if it were to be imposed, Erdoğan first claimed the entire process was an “injustice” and that Atilla was not a criminal.
“Of course, right now a great injustice is being done against Halkbank. Especially Hakan Atilla is in no way a criminal. Hakan Atilla is a friend of ours who has been regularly visiting the US and has been detained in his last, or his sixth visit, without any crime existing. There should be no such injustice. At the moment, unfortunately, he is there in detention. He remains in custody, waiting for his fate. The courts are continuing in a different way and I don’t know what result will come out of this. There is a judicial procedure and the lawyers of Halkbank especially are following this judicial process. I hope it doesn’t yield a result that will completely destroy Turkish-US relations,” Erdoğan said.
When pressed on his allegation of an injustice having been committed and whether or not Turkey would pay a fine under that line of thinking, Erdoğan said Turkey would have to wait to see how Atilla’s case plays out, adding, “If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.”
Asked a third time about Turkey paying a possible fine if the Turkish state were to be declared a criminal, Erdoğan responded, “Let the result appear first. After the result, of course our bank will do what the laws require them to do.”
Zarrab testified in early December that he had bribed Turkey’s former economy minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, in the billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran and that then-Prime Minister and current President Erdoğan personally authorized the involvement of Turkish banks in the scheme although he was not charged in the case.
The jury in Atilla’s trial in US federal court found him guilty on five counts, including bank fraud and conspiracy, and not guilty on one count of money laundering in a case that portrayed high-level corruption in Turkey and heightened tensions between the US and its NATO ally.