U.S. prosecutors in oil-for-gold case to play Turkish police recordings in court

Tim Lowell in Ankara and Ilhan Tanir in Washington DC


December 17, 2013 was a milestone for Turkey.

Police detained 89 people in a series of coordinated raids, the first part of what was intended to be a five-stage operation, with five different instances of apparent corruption at the top of the ruling AK Party exposed and the net gradually closing around then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In that first stage, the sons of government ministers, Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab and Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Aslan were among those whose arrests were confirmed by the court.

Turkish authorities say most of the prosecutors, judges and police involved in the case were members of the Gülen movement, an Islamist group that had entered into a close and mutually beneficial alliance with now President Erdoğan and his AK Party from the first days of its rule. The Dec. 17 arrests marked the irrevocable split between the erstwhile allies.

With its followers ensconced in the police and judiciary during a decade of AK Party rule, the Gülen movement was well placed to order wiretaps on everyone from the prime minister down. Recordings of phone calls between participants in the alleged frauds formed the main evidence against those arrested and accused of graft.

Before the prosecutions could progress however, Erdoğan’s AK Party mobilised its own forces within the judiciary and there followed a desperate struggle to replace, remove and arrest all those connected with the investigation.


Now it looks like many of these same wiretaps may surface in U.S. courts, where the New York Southern District U.S. attorney’s office has stated that it plans to use leaked Turkish law enforcement recordings in its prosecution of Zarrab and the deputy general manager of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla. Both are now in U.S. custody awaiting trial.

According to emails newly published by the courts, U.S. prosecutors will play recordings they say will show that Zarrab bypassed international sanctions on Iran with the help of Atilla’s bank:

The evidence will include, among other things, documents and communications reflecting multiple meetings and discussions between and among Zarrab, Atilla, other Halkbank officials, and Turkish government officials with Iranian government, oil, and banking officials about methods to evade U.S. sanctions to extract Iranian funds from Halkbank.

The prosecutors have accused Zarrab, an Iranian and naturalised Turkish citizen, of running a complex scheme to help the Iranian government evade U.S. sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme. They say Zarrab and his associates shipped gold to Iran from Turkey in return for oil, and then laundered the proceeds through Turkish banks.

However, a lawyer for Atilla wrote in a court-filing that he did not expect Zarrab to stand trial in the same case – a cryptic remark which could mean he believed Zarrab would be tried separately or that he had made a bargain with U.S. authorities.

If he does make a plea bargain, it will trigger speculation over which big fish Zarrab might be helping U.S. courts to hook.

The New York Times, noting that Zarrab has now missed key trial deadlines, said it looked likely he was planning to plead guilty:

If Mr. Zarrab is negotiating a guilty plea, one question will be whether he would cooperate with the American investigation. The prosecution has strained relations between the United States and Turkey, and has drawn sharp criticism from President Erdogan, who has often raised it with American officials.

Financial crimes consultant Kenneth Rijock told Ahval that Zarrab had not yet filed any notice that he was changing his plea, but that it would make sense in the circumstances.

“That would be the smart move on his part,” he said, “because the evidence appears sufficient to obtain a conviction, and any appeal that he files later statistically has a small chance of success.”

Atilla’s U.S. defence lawyer Cathy Fleming has told the court she believed the Turkish police recordings constituted inadmissible evidence: “Among other things, these recordings are incomplete, the generation and origin of the recordings are unknown, we have no information regarding chain of custody, etc.”

In addition, the defence said the recordings needed to undergo a forensic investigation to determine if they were genuine before they could be used, and suggested that the motivations of those who provided them may have been to embarrass the Turkish government rather than ensure that justice was served.

Meanwhile, if the recordings were considered admissible evidence in U.S. courts of law, it could prove very embarrassing to Erdoğan. A few months after the December 2013 debacle, anonymous social media accounts believed to be connected to the Gülen movement leaked a recording from the day of the 17th.

On the telephone recording, Erdoğan can be heard telling his son to “get rid of” large amounts of cash before the police, then raiding apartments belonging to the family members of his ministers, got around to them.