Turkish banker not the big fish in U.S. Iran sanctions trial, defence says

Lawyers for Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, on trial in a New York court case that has rocked relations between the United States and Turkey, attempted to portray him as marginal to the billion-dollar conspiracy to evade sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said the trial is being conducted by a “fake court” and is a plot to undermine his country politically and economically.

In their second day of cross-examining the state’s star witness, Zarrab, who has admitted organising the trade gold from Turkey for embargoed Iranian oil and gas, Atilla’s attorneys tried to show the millionaire Turkish-Iranian businessman was corrupt and dishonest, and dealt mainly with other bank officials to launder the proceeds of the scheme.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami as he arrived for a family holiday in Disney World in March 2016, but has pleaded guilty and agreed to provide full disclosure of his involvement in the alleged crimes in the expectation of receiving a shorter sentence than the decades he would likely otherwise spend in jail had he fought the case and lost.

Defence lawyer Cathy Fleming attempted to show that Halkbank deputy general manager Atilla was far from the main actor at Turkish state-owned bank. Levent Balkan, who oversaw international operations of Halkbank, was the key figure at the bank involved in the money laundering operations, the defence team said.

Zarrab told the jury he often chatted online and talked with Süleyman Aslan, the general manager at Halkbank, and said he and Aslan often met face-to-face, but admitted Atilla never asked for a face-to-face meeting. Zarrab admitted asking Aslan to have Balkan sacked as he said he was informing competitors of the activities.

Prosecutors have also charged both Aslan and Balkan with involvement in the scheme, as well as a Turkish former economy minister, but they are outside U.S. custody.

Questioned by Fleming, Zarrab admitted to lying to Atilla in a recorded telephone conversation in April 2013 about “fake food” exports to Iran. Atilla, the deputy general manager at Turkish state-owned Halkbank, did not know in the beginning that no food was being sent to Iran and that the fictitious trade was just a cover for payments in the oil-for-gold scheme, Zarrab conceded. Later on though, Zarrab argued, Atilla became one of the key officials developing the scheme to organize fake food exports to Iran.

The court was also played a recording of Zarrab talking to his assistant Abdullah Happani in which he referred to “chickenova”.

"Chickenova is a term that we used amongst the personnel of mine for any trade that was not real, and any trade that did not involve real goods, ma’am," Zarrab told the court.

Fleming accused Zarrab of believing that everyone could be bribed.

"You have said and you believe that every person has a price, correct?" she asked.

"Everyone who's inclined to be bribed has a price, that is correct, ma'am," Zarrab replied.

Defence lawyers played recordings of Zarrab talking to his employees in China and directing them to bribe the banks there. In one of the recordings, Zarrab, who admitted on Tuesday to procuring prostitutes for others, said “one should pay the prostitutes and officials upfront”.

Zarrab was also asked about his life with his pop-star wife, Ebru Gündeş, and tabloid coverage of the pair. Zarrab famously gave her lavish gifts, including a racehorse named “Duty Free”.

"Ninety-nine percent of the news published in the media about us was bogus and fake news," Zarrab said.