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politics

Turkish Banker Seeks Mistrial Over ‘Sensational’ Testimony

Updated on
  • U.S. faulted for sensationalizing case with irrelevant proof
  • Atilla is on trial over laundering Iranian oil proceeds

The trial of a Turkish banker accused of helping violate U.S sanctions against Iran should be halted because prosecutors offered sensational evidence about the role of Turkish officials including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, defense lawyers said.

Lawyers for Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former executive with the state-owned Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, argued that a former Turkish police investigator presented "inadmissible, confusing and overly prejudicial evidence" during two days of testimony in Manhattan federal court. Huseyin Korkmaz said Erdogan, formerly Turkey’s prime minister, was one of the targets of a Turkish investigation from 2012 to 2013. The ex-officer had testified about a probe of a criminal smuggling and money laundering ring led by gold trader Reza Zarrab.

"The repeated testimony implicating high-level officials in Turkey based on hearsay evidence is inappropriate on many levels," Atilla’s lawyers said in a letter Wednesday to U.S. District Judge Richard Berman. The judge initially denied the request because Korkmaz’s testimony wasn’t complete when it was made. He directed the lawyers to refile an updated version tomorrow.

The Turkish investigation yielded a 500-page investigative report and more than two dozen arrests. Korkmaz testified the investigation initially focused on the Zarrab scheme, then broadened to include bribery of officials including Mehmet Zafer Caglayan, Turkey’s economy minister, and Suleyman Aslan, Halkbank’s chief executive.

Erdogan Was Target in Bribery Inquiry, Turkish Officer Says

Korkmaz, testifying through a Turkish interpreter this week, took jurors through numerous wiretaps and surveillance photos, testifying about bribes paid with currency-filled shoe boxes. He told jurors he was reassigned from the case within days of a 2013 police raid and later jailed. Korkmaz said he fled the country and took with him evidence from the investigation, which he turned over to U.S. authorities.

“I left the country I dearly loved,” he said tearfully, testifying he fears torture if he were to return to Turkey.

Prosecutors said they needed to offer Kormaz’s testimony to show how they obtained Turkish documents and other evidence shown to the jury.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard, Korkmaz said that Atilla was among the Halkbank executives who were under investigation in the Turkish case. Atilla wasn’t charged in that case.

Much of Korkmaz’s testimony was focused on how the Turkish criminal investigation was suppressed, with little mention of Atilla. His lawyers faulted Korkmaz for testifying about the Turkish investigation in ways they say violated U.S. trial rules and unfairly prejudiced the jury against their client.

Halkbank’s Atilla Reassured Treasury as Plot Went On, U.S. Says

On cross-examination by Todd Harrison, one of Atilla’s lawyers, Korkmaz agreed he had no information that Atilla ever met with Zarrab or that Atilla was paid any bribes.

Korkmaz denied questions by Harrison seeking to link him to a movement tied to former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen, which the Turkish government blames for a 2016 coup attempt. Gulen currently lives in Pennsylvania.

Atilla was one of nine people indicted in the U.S. in late 2015, including Zarrab, Caglayan and Aslan. Zarrab pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government’s investigation, testifying against Atilla for seven days. The other defendants have avoided arrest by U.S. authorities, leaving Atilla as the sole defendant in the Manhattan trial, which began with opening statements Nov. 28.

The case is U.S. v. Atilla, 15-cr-867, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

(Updates with judge’s comment.)
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