Zarrab potential witness as Erdoğan cited in U.S. sanctions-busting case

Iranian-Turkish gold dealer Reza Zarrab is a potential witness in a U.S. sanctions-busting case against former Turkish state banking executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, according to a court document.

On Monday, Richard Berman, judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, distributed a list of potential witnesses and other prominent names to be cited in the case, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his son Bilal Erdoğan.

The document was named "Criminal Case Voir Dire", or a preliminary examination of a witness or the jury pool by a judge or counsel.

Other well-known names included former EU minister Egemen Bağış, former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, current Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek and other Turkish government and banking officials.

The only defendant cited in the court case is Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former executive of Turkish Halkbank.

Political tensions between Turkey and the U.S. have ramped up as the trial approached, with Erdoğan calling for the case's dismissal saying it is a conspiracy against his government.

Reza Zarrab, thought to be the most important defendant until very recently, was only cited as "co-conspirator”. Zarrab’s name appearing on the list not as a defendant makes it almost certain that he has agreed a deal with prosecutors and would be available, likely, as a potential witness in the case.

Jury selection finally began on Monday under Berman's supervision.

Court sketch of Judge Berman
Court sketch of Judge Berman

The court case is entitled "United States v. Mehmet Hakan Atilla", and according to pool reporters, Judge Berman has confirmed to jurors that Halkbank executive Atilla will be the only defendant in the case.

Zarrab has been jailed since March 2016, when he arrived in Miami for a family vacation. For almost 20 months, Zarrab, together with a stable of costly lawyers, has been battling with the court to get his case dismissed. After the latest indictment in early September, Zarrab stopped showing up at hearings and ceased participating in the preparatory hearings for the trial.

The release of the Criminal Case Voir Dire is unlikely to do any favours for Turkey’s banking sector, with three Turkish banks – the state-owned Halkbank and Ziraat Bank and the privately owned AktifBank which is known to be close to the Erdoğan family – being listed alongside a catalogue of Halkbank present and former employees.

Douglas Sloan, Deutsche Bank’s U.S head of anti-financial crime, Citibank’s Robert Peri, who is the bank’s director of compliance, intelligence and investigations, were named in the document as potential witnesses.

HSBC, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Standard Chartered Bank, UBS AG and Wells Fargo, may also be subjects in the case, according to the document, while one of the places the document lists is Trump Towers in Istanbul.