National News

Iran Sanctions Jury Deliberates: Was Banker a Liar or a Pawn?

Posted December 20, 2017 7:06 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The jury considering the fate of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker charged with participating in an oil-for-gold smuggling scheme that violated U.S. sanctions against Iran, was sent home by the judge on Wednesday after deliberating for half a day without reaching a verdict.

Atilla, 47, was a deputy general manager of a Turkish state bank, Halkbank, that prosecutors say was crucial to the success of the sanctions evasion. The government presented evidence that Atilla helped to devise the scheme and that he deceived U.S. Treasury Department officials about it.

“This is a case about lies,” a prosecutor, Michael D. Lockard, said Tuesday in the government’s closing argument. “This is a case about the lies that Mr. Atilla told to cover up a multibillion dollar sanctions-busting scheme operating out of his bank.”

Atilla, testifying in his own behalf, denied that he had participated in any such conspiracy or that he had engaged in wrongdoing. His lawyers painted him as the victim of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who pleaded guilty in October and has been cooperating with the government.

“Hakan Atilla is a blameless pawn, collateral damage in a story that belongs in the ‘Twilight Zone,’ not in an American courtroom,” Victor J. Rocco, a lawyer for Atilla, told the jury on Tuesday in the defense’s summation.

Over seven days of testimony, Zarrab, 34, said the scheme had been approved at the highest levels of the Turkish government. In 2012, he said, Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then Turkey’s prime minister, now its president — ordered that two Turkish banks be allowed to participate in the operation.

Erdogan has denounced the prosecution of Atilla and Zarrab, claiming it was based on fabricated evidence and raising the matter with U.S. officials, including President Donald Trump.

In Turkey, the effect of the widely watched case continued this week with a court issuing a detention order for the parents, wife, two sisters and a brother of Huseyin Korkmaz, a former Turkish police officer who testified for the government at the trial, according to the Anadolu News Agency. None of Korkmaz’s relatives were found in their residences.

Korkmaz had led a Turkish corruption investigation that resulted in the 2013 arrest of Zarrab and others, an inquiry that was later quashed by Turkish officials.

Zarrab was released and restarted his smuggling scheme, according to trial testimony, while Korkmaz was jailed and later fled from Turkey. He carried with him a trove of evidence that he gave to U.S. authorities.

Korkmaz testified last week that he had given certain pieces of evidence to his mother for safekeeping.

Earlier Wednesday, the trial judge, Richard M. Berman of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, instructed the jurors on the law before sending them out at 12:35 to begin deliberations. At day’s end, the jury requested certain pieces of evidence, including an arrest video of Atilla, diagrams Zarrab had drawn for the jury, as well as highlighters, Post-it notes, pens, coffee, tea, milk and hot water. The deliberations were to resume on Thursday.