World News

Turkey Calls U.S. Conviction of Banker ‘Scandalous’

Posted January 4, 2018 5:40 p.m. EST

ISTANBUL — Turkey on Thursday criticized a U.S. jury’s decision to convict a Turkish banker on charges of conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran, calling the verdict “unjust” and the trial an “unprecedented interference” in its internal affairs.

Yet the sanctions-evasion scandal, in which ministers and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were linked to a billion-dollar gold-for-oil trade to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions, appears to have passed in Turkey. The official comments had an air of repetition, and the reaction on social media was muted.

The banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, was found guilty on five of six counts, including bank fraud and conspiracies to defraud the United States and violate U.S. sanctions. Atilla’s employer, Halkbank, said he would appeal the decision, and noted that it had not been indicted or involved in the court proceedings.

Political analysts predicted that the affair would blow over because Erdogan had not been indicted or badly hurt by new evidence revealed at the trial. The government had successfully framed the case as a plot by its enemies, they said, so the verdict came as no surprise.

“It will have zero impact,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. “Erdogan has already persuaded his supporters that it is a conspiracy.”

Erdogan had seemed particularly concerned by the case of another defendant, the wealthy gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty before the trial and became the prosecution’s star witness. Although Zarrab indicated several times that Erdogan knew of the sanctions-evasion plan, many in Turkey did not see his testimony as damning.

Erdogan, who excoriated U.S. officials over the trial, and personally raised it in a telephone conversation with President Donald Trump in September, made no statement Thursday, leaving the reaction to others.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry called the verdict “unjust and unfortunate” and the trial an “unprecedented interference in Turkey’s internal affairs.” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said it represented “an attack on Turkey’s judiciary and sovereignty, and we do not accept it.” A senior presidential adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, described the verdict as a “scandalous decision in a scandalous trial.”

The officials repeated Turkish government complaints that evidence used in the case against Atilla had been compiled by followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based preacher whom Turkey accuses of orchestrating a coup attempt in 2016. Gulen has denied any involvement.

Turkey has also accused Gulen’s movement of being behind the nation’s own criminal investigation into the sanctions-busting scheme, in 2013, which provided much of the evidence used in the American indictment.

The consistent government message, explaining the court case as a plot against Turkey and Erdogan, has found a ready audience among many Turks who already believe the United States was behind the failed coup in July 2016, Unluhisarcikli said. “This fits into the conspiracy that the U.S. wants to topple the government,” he said.

Erdogan has depicted popular demonstrations against him in Taksim Square in 2013 as a first move to unseat him, followed by two others: the 2013 criminal investigation into the sanctions-busting scheme and the failed coup three years later, which left more than 200 people dead.

It is widely believed in Turkey that followers of Gulen were behind the failed coup, and the failure of the United States to agree to his extradition is perceived as a sign of U.S. complicity by many Turks. U.S. officials say Turkey does not have convincing evidence for extradition.

Turkey has also requested the extradition of a police investigator, Huseyin Korkmaz, who led the investigation against Zarrab in 2013 and served as a witness in the U.S. trial. Korkmaz told the court that he had fled Turkey with files from his investigation, with the help of U.S. law enforcement officials.

“It is a shameful political operation,” Kalin, the presidential adviser, said at a news briefing in Ankara. “Those who think they can harm Turkey that way, our nation clearly sees the game that was set up.” The judge presiding over Atilla’s trial, Richard M Berman, criticized the defense lawyers for introducing such theories, describing them as far-fetched.

Turkish officials are now concerned about shoring up confidence in the economy, as analysts predicted that Halkbank would be fined by the U.S. Treasury Department for having a role in the violations of the sanctions.

Halkbank insisted that it had not violated any regulations in a statement on its website.

“Our bank is always going to maintain its policy of transparency in transactions and compliance to international regulations decisively,” its statement said.

Financial analysts said previous cases resulted in banks being fined $5 billion to $10 billion. Turkey’s Finance Ministry has said it will support banks in case of penalties, and Halkbank’s share price rose 2 percentage points Thursday, an indication of confidence.