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Turkey’s Halkbank files motion for dismissal of US federal judge

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Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank filed a motion on Tuesday demanding the dismissal of federal judge Richard Berman, who is overseeing the bank’s case in a New York court, on the grounds of lack of impartiality, the Ahval news website reported.

Halkbank is accused of laundering about $20 million on behalf of the Iranian government and other affiliated institutions between 2010 and 2016. The Southern District of New York (SDNY) indicted the bank on Oct. 15, 2019, for what is accepted to be the largest sanctions-busting case to date.

The bank accused federal judge Berman of “acting inappropriately” over his remarks on a Turkish corruption scandal in December 17-25, 2013 that implicated President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his inner circle.

Halkbank was indicted based on the earlier conviction of Reza Zarrab – a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who in March 2016 was arrested for orchestrating the scheme of circumventing US sanctions against Iran. Zarrab later flipped to cooperate with SDNY prosecutors in exchange for leniency, which led to the arrest and indictment of Halkbank executive Hakan Atilla.

The bank refused to appear to the court for months, arguing that the SDNY has no authority over Turkey before agreeing in February to appear in court.

In a 25-page memo, Halkbank’s defense team on Tuesday accused Berman, who presided over Atilla’s case and is currently handling the Halkbank case, of bias for his earlier attendance in a conference in İstanbul, where the judge criticized the Turkish authorities’ response to the December 2013 corruption probe.

The memo also objects to the judge for publicly commenting on the Halkbank case following the Atilla conviction.

Michael A. Reynolds, the director of Princeton’s Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, also submitted expert testimony on behalf of Halkbank to the court for the Berman’s dismissal.

“Given the context of the assigned judge’s comments, I believe that one could reasonably conclude that the assigned judge is partial to FETÖ’s version of events vis-à-vis the 17–25 December 2013 events,” Reynolds wrote, using the derogatory term coined by the Turkish government to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement. “I therefore believe that there is ample reason to question whether the assigned judge would impartially preside over the criminal trial against Halkbank, which involves allegations that substantially overlap with those made in the 17–25 December 2013 ‘investigation’.”

The Turkish government accuses the Gülen movement, led by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, of being behind the corruption probe of December 2013 as well as orchestrating a failed coup in July 2016. The movement denies any involvement.

The US authorities have declined to comply with Turkey’s repeated requests for Gülen’s extradition, citing failure to provide sufficient evidence.

Berman is expected to rule over Halkbank’s dismissal request in the coming days.

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