A top Turkish banker convicted by the US of helping Iran evade US sanctions has said prosecutors may question a Turkish-Iranian gold trader’s relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government in “another round” in a US trial over Iran sanctions, the T24 news website reported.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former executive at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, was sentenced to 32 months in prison by a US court in May 2018 after he was convicted earlier that year of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions.
The charges against Atilla stemmed from an investigation that first became public with the 2016 arrest in the US of gold trader Reza Zarrab. The businessman, who US prosecutors said had close ties to Erdoğan, struck a plea deal and testified in Atilla’s trial as a witness.
Atilla said in an interview with journalist Cansu Çamlıbel from the T24 news website on Monday, a day before Halkbank’s presentation of its case at the US Supreme Court, that the prosecutors who chose not to ask Zarrab about his links to Erdoğan and his government may have been reserving those questions for “another round.”
“[This is] because the primary concern of prosecutors is to win that case. At that point, it doesn’t make much sense to expose those relationships and write a script for it,” Atilla said.
Zarrab, who testified during the US trial that he paid over $50 million in bribes to Turkey’s finance minister to help the sanctions-busting scheme flourish, had avoided justice in Turkey despite being the prime suspect in a massive corruption investigation in late 2013 implicating then-prime minister Erdoğan’s cabinet and family.
The banker added that it was “probable” that Zarrab would be on the stand again in the Halkbank hearings if the US Supreme Court fails to rule in favor of the bank.
Federal prosecutors in New York in 2019 also brought charges against Halkbank, accusing it of money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy for allegedly helping Iran evade economic sanctions. They claim the bank participated in a scheme to launder about $20 billion of Iranian oil and natural gas proceeds in violation of US sanctions on Iran.
When asked whether the US Supreme Court would rule in favor of Halkbank, Atilla said he hoped so, adding that he wasn’t very optimistic about it since he has no confidence left in the American judicial system.
Halkbank’s lawyers will present its case before the US Supreme Court on Tuesday.
Halkbank previously appealed a lower court’s decision rejecting the bank’s contention that it was immune from US prosecution under a 1976 law called the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which limits the jurisdiction of American courts over lawsuits against foreign countries because the business is majority-owned by the Turkish government.
US Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, however, replied to Halkbank’s arguments to avoid criminal charges last month, saying in a 62-page brief submitted to the US Supreme Court that Halkbank had no claim of immunity under the FSIA and that there was no legal obstacle for the bank to be prosecuted in the US.
The bank previously pleaded not guilty to charges of bank fraud, money laundering and conspiracy over allegations that it used money servicers and front companies in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates to evade sanctions.
Erdoğan called the US government’s decision to charge the bank an “ugly, unlawful” step and has pushed for the case to be dropped.
Atilla was released from prison in the US in 2019 after spending 28 months behind bars, and returned to Turkey, where he was welcomed as a hero by the administration of President Erdoğan. Erdoğan dismissed the allegations against him, insisting the case against Atilla was “politically motivated.”