Ilhan Tanir
Dec 08 2017

Zarrab trial: ''The groom said the job should be done''

Reza Zarrab, the U.S. prosecution star witness in a New York trial that has rocked relations between Turkey and the United States, said President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and a close relative had been behind his decision to restart his billion-dollar oil-for-gold trade with Iran after being freed from a Turkish jail in 2014.

The millionaire Turkish-Iranian gold trader’s testimony came on his seventh and final day in the witness stand in which he also said he had been threatened with a knife in jail for cooperating with authorities. Meanwhile, outside the court proceedings, another inmate accused Zarrab of raping and sexually assaulting him in prison.

Zarrab was arrested in Miami as he arrived for a family holiday at Disney World in March 2016, but has pleaded guilty and agreed to provide full disclosure of his involvement in the scheme to bypass an international embargo on Iran in the hope of leniency. Zarrab would have faced decades in jail if he had he fought the case and lost.

He has already testified that the sole defendant in the case, 47-year-old Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at Turkish state-owned Halkbank, had aided in the scheme by laundering funds through a series of transactions to hide the illicit trade.

Erdoğan has said the trial is being conducted by a “fake court” and is a plot to undermine his country politically and economically. Turkey’s relations with the United States are also under strain over President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, U.S. backing for Syrian Kurdish forces and Washington’s refusal to hand over Erdoğan’s ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gülen.

Turkish prosecutors ordered the arrest in December 2013 of dozens of high profile individuals, including Zarrab and relatives of three ministers, on charges of bribery and corruption relating to the trade with neighbouring Iran that violated international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic over its nuclear programme.

After initially being wrong-footed, Erdoğan – prime minister at the time – had the prosecutors and police involved in the case removed from office and arrested, changing places with Zarrab and the others they had jailed. Erdoğan called the initial arrests a “judicial coup” carried out followers of U.S.-based Gülen, the man he accuses of later ordering the July 2016 failed military attempt to overthrow his government.

Zarrab testified to the court about two critical phone messages he exchanged with his lawyer that led him to reboot his illicit trade after he was freed from jail in February 2014.

The first was a cryptic message that read: ''The groom said the job should be done.'' When asked, Zarrab confirmed that the "the groom" referred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s current energy minister and one of the most powerful members of the cabinet. Zarrab said “the job” was the “Iran sanctions evasion” scheme.

In another message in June 2014, Zarrab's attorney referred to the “the BB”. Zarrab said that referred to the prime minister – başbakan in Turkish. The message said, “the BB is going to meet with the GM”, referring to the general manager of Halkbank “to start the process”.

The next message displayed to the court from Zarrab’s Turkish lawyer said the situation would be explained to “BB” and then the operation could “resume as usual”.

After his release from the Turkish jail, Zarrab found key personnel at Halkbank had been changed. Atilla’s boss, Süleyman Aslan, had been replaced as general manager at Halkbank by Ali Fuat Taşkesenlioğlu who, Zarrab said, resisted the resumption of the scheme. Nevertheless, Zarrab said, Atilla and others at the bank were on his side.

Atilla’s lawyers have sought to portray their client as marginal to the scheme.

Aslan is among seven more people accused who are outside U.S. custody. Among them is former economy minister Zafer Çağlayan who it is alleged took tens of millions of dollars in bribes to cover up the scheme. Zarrab said he had given Çağlayan a piano, among other expensive gifts.

Zarrab also said he had been threatened with a knife at a Brooklyn jail by a fellow inmate who had been told to kill him as he was cooperating with U.S. authorities.

"An individual tried to take my life," Zarrab told the court. "He had received instructions to kill me because I was cooperating."

Zarrab was then moved to another detention facility and after the trial could possibly enter the witness protection programme as part of his plea bargain deal.

In another lurid twist to the high-profile trial, a different inmate has accused Zarrab of raping and sexually assaulting him in prison and is suing for unspecified damages.

The unnamed 62-year-old plaintiff was arrested in the Czech Republic last year and pleaded guilty to supporting the banned Colombian FARC rebels. The man, originally from Ivory Coast, said he had received financial help from Zarrab to hire a lawyer and to send money to his family in Africa. When asked, Zarrab said he lent the man money to hire a private attorney.

The man said Zarrab attacked him in March. The inmate said he “felt helpless and unable to fight off the younger and stronger” man and that he was “too scared and embarrassed at that time to complain or to seek help.”

An inquiry by the jail found the complaint to be unsubstantiated while the inmate's lawyer said the timing of the lawsuit was coincidental.