Defense: Government failed in case against Turkish banker

AP News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2017 5:54 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A prosecutor labeled a Turkish banker a liar while a defense lawyer described him as a pawn victimized by a corrupt boss as a trial that has strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey neared the finish line on Tuesday.

The fate of Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla will rest with federal court jurors on Wednesday after a judge reads them instructions on the law.

Atilla helped Iran overcome U.S. economic sanctions to launder billions of dollars through world banks, including in the United States, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard said. Atilla lied during three days on the witness stand to protect the state-run bank where he has worked for more than two decades and to protect his job as one of its top executives, Lockard said.

Defense attorney Victor Rocco said Atilla was a "blameless pawn, collateral damage in a story that belongs in the 'Twilight Zone,' not an American courtroom."

At the least, Rocco's characterization of the prosecution and trial as unusual was accurate, regardless of the eventual verdict.

The government's star witness, wealthy gold trader Reza Zarrab, was once the primary defendant after his arrest as he arrived in the United States nearly two years ago to take his family to Disney World.

Zarrab, who is well known in Turkey because he's married to Turkish pop star and TV personality Ebru Gundes, pleaded guilty several weeks ago and cooperated with U.S. prosecutors after the failure of two prominent U.S. lawyers to reach a diplomatic solution to the case.

Zarrab testified more than a week, saying he was told that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed off on the scheme to help Iran evade sanctions while Erdogan was the nation's prime minister.

Officials in Turkey have called the trial a charade aimed at discrediting Erdogan's government. They said Zarrab's testimony was coerced, an allegation the U.S. has called "ridiculous."

Halkbank said in a statement during the trial that it "strictly adheres to national and international regulations" in all businesses and transactions.

Rocco, as he did at the trial's opening, cast Zarrab as the villain, saying he masterminded the scheme and paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to get bank and government officials to go along with it. He called Atilla "an honest man."

"He's not corrupt," Rocco said. "He's never been bribed."

Lockard challenged jurors to compare Atilla's testimony with the evidence to unearth his lies.

"Some of the lies were small, some of them medium, some of them were large," the prosecutor said.

He said some of the lies were "whoppers."

Some of Atilla's biggest lies, Lockard said, were to the U.S. Department of the Treasury after an investigation into his bank's transactions with Iranian money was launched in 2013. He told jurors they could find the truth.

"You have seen the evidence that the Treasury Department did not know," he said.