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Turkish Banker Is Convicted in Plot to Evade Iran Sanctions

Mr. Atilla, 47, was described by prosecutors as a “fixer” who helped Iran circumvent the sanctions and gain access to billions of dollars of restricted petrodollar funds that were being held at the bank.

In testimony over seven days, Mr. Zarrab described an illicit operation that relied on false documents and front companies. He also pointed to support from the highest levels of the Turkish government, as well as Iranian officials and Halkbank, an institution that prosecutors said was critical to the scheme’s success.

Mr. Zarrab testified that in 2012, Mr. Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister and now its president, ordered that two Turkish banks be allowed to participate in the sanctions evasion scheme.

He also told the jury that he had paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to Zafer Caglayan, then Turkey’s economy minister, and additional bribes to Suleyman Aslan, the general manager of Halkbank, for help in facilitating the operation. Mr. Caglayan and Mr. Aslan are among the defendants still at large in the case.

Mr. Zarrab testified that he had made as much as $ 150 million from the scheme.

Prosecutors portrayed Mr. Atilla as a sanctions expert who designed the complex scheme and then lied to United States Treasury Department officials about it. He lied again, they argued, when he testified in his own defense at the trial.

“Why did Mr. Atilla tell all those lies?” Michael D. Lockard, a federal prosecutor, said in a closing argument. “To help his bank, to help his bank’s customers — customers like Mr. Zarrab, customers like the government of Iran, the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil company. Lies that he told to keep his bank from being blacklisted from the American financial system.”


Mehmet Hakan Atilla, in a photo from social media.

Mr. Atilla denied that he had conspired with Mr. Zarrab or that he had been involved in any other wrongdoing.

Mr. Erdogan claimed that the case was based on fabricated evidence.

During an interview recently on the news channel, 24 TV, Turkey’s justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, assailed the credibility of the entire proceeding.

“A final ruling on this will mean nothing to us,” he said. “This is a tragedy in the judiciary with no legal foundations, turning into a comedy over time.”

As the trial began, Mr. Erdogan and other Turkish officials had made strenuous efforts to play down its significance. A month later, as they awaited a verdict, they struck a tone of confidence that they had ridden out the worst.

Most Turkish newspapers were predicting a favorable verdict, and analysts said the government, which controls most of the media in Turkey, had managed to frame the trial as an American plot.

On his way back from Africa on Dec. 27, Mr. Erdogan told pro-government reporters on his presidential plane that he expected Mr. Atilla would be acquitted. “I am of the opinion that they have also realized that Atilla is not guilty,” he said.

Political analysts and opposition politicians had suggested that whatever the verdict, Mr. Erdogan was likely to emerge unscathed, but that Turkish banks — and consequently the Turkish economy — might be hurt.

“The economic downside is more important than the political effect,” said Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. “It would be unrealistic to expect an immediate challenge to the government.”

Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, predicted that a conviction might not have many consequences.

“First,” she said, “the Turkish nation has never been very sensitive about corruption. Also, in a period of strong anti-U.S. feeling, the government successfully managed to frame it.”

Ms. Tol said, “The majority of the people still consider the U.S.A. as being the mastermind of the coup attempt.”

Erdal Aksunger, a former legislator for the Revolutionary People’s Party who served on a parliamentary commission that investigated the gold-for-oil scandal in 2014, said he saw how Turkish prosecutors and the government ignored evidence of corruption and bribetaking.

He said he expected the Turkish banking system would be hit with fines. “We are getting anxious questions from business people such as, ‘Which banks would be involved?’” Mr. Aksunger said.

Source: NYT > World

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