World News

Judge in Sanctions Case Dismisses a ‘Conspiracy Theory’

Posted December 15, 2017 9:08 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — For three weeks, a Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, has been on trial in Manhattan, charged with participating in a billion-dollar scheme to smuggle oil for gold in violation of U.S. sanctions on Iran.

But Friday, the case took an unusual turn when the judge, Richard M. Berman of U.S. District Court, sharply criticized Atilla’s lawyers for injecting a long-standing Turkish political dispute into the case.

“The defense,” the judge said, “appears quite willing to join a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory bandwagon, which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom.”

Berman was alluding in part to Turkish officials’ harsh attacks on the United States’ prosecution of Atilla and a former co-defendant, Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman who has pleaded guilty and testified against Atilla.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called the U.S. charges a fabrication and has blamed the influence of Gulenists — followers of the Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey accuses of fomenting last year’s failed coup — for the case.

The judge’s comments, made while the jury was out of the courtroom, were part of a ruling denying Atilla’s request for a mistrial on the grounds that the government’s evidence had not been properly authenticated and was highly prejudicial.

In denying the request for a mistrial, the judge rejected the defense’s claims. “In my judgment,” he said, “Mr. Atilla has received and is receiving a thoroughly fair and transparent trial.”

The judge’s allusions to the Gulenist issue, however, seemed to underscore the extraordinary nature of the case, which has sent political tremors through Turkey and riveted the public there.

The judge focused his criticism on the cross-examination of a former Turkish police officer, Huseyin Korkmaz, who fled Turkey last year with evidence from a 2013 Turkish corruption investigation that he had supervised, which he later gave to U.S. authorities.

Turkish officials had quashed the 2013 police investigation and jailed Korkmaz for a time, the jury has been told.

In one exchange during the cross-examination that the judge cited critically, a defense lawyer, Todd Harrison, noted that Korkmaz had been freed from prison after a Turkish judge received a letter from Gulen, asking that Atilla and others be released.

“Correct?” Harrison asked.

“This sounds very illogical to me,” Korkmaz responded, denying that he knew Gulen or the Turkish judge.

Berman also cited questions in which he said Harrison appeared to be arguing that Korkmaz’s police promotions were mostly the result of “alleged Gulenist backing.”

The judge said the defense’s “illogical foreign conspiracy theory has no foundation in the record, and is, in reality, unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional, as a diversion from the issues to be decided in this case.”

Harrison, asked later for comment, said: “I disagree. I think it was legitimate cross-examination.”

Earlier Friday, Michael D. Lockard, an assistant U.S. attorney, announced that the prosecution was resting its case.

After the defense began its presentation, Atilla started testifying, a decision the defense revealed late Thursday.

Another defense lawyer, Cathy Fleming, asked him, “Did you conspire with Reza Zarrab to evade sanctions?”

“Never,” Atilla said through an interpreter.

“Did you intend to defraud any banks?”

“Never,” he repeated.

Fleming posed several other such questions, drawing much the same response.

“Are you the architect of the schemes that Mr. Zarrab drew for this jury?” she asked, referring to a diagram Zarrab sketched when he was on the witness stand.

“I’m not,” Attila said.