On Wednesday a Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla age 47, who had been accused of aiding Iran to circumvent economic sanctions was convicted by a U.S. court on four counts of conspiracy including conspiracy to defraud the United States and one separate count of bank fraud. The situation has put a strain on U.S.-Turkish relations since his arrest and has spoken volumes about the corruption that has seeped into all levels of the Turkish government. Mehmet was acquitted of one count of money laundering.
As a deputy general manager for the Turkish state-run Halkbank, Mehmet was charged with participating in a complex scheme where Iranian gas and oil were traded for gold. Some of the proceeds from this elaborate scheme were funneled through United States-based financial institutions, unbeknownst to them, as well.
What sealed Mehmet’s fate was a Turkish-Iranian gold trader by the name of Reza Zarrab, a go-to witness for the prosecution during the case and trial. Reza admitted to setting up and executing the deals with Iran over the course of the multiple exchanges. Reza told the court that he had paid over $50 million dollars worth of bribes to the nation of Turkey’s Minister of Finance in 2012 in an effort to bring the scheme forward with the times. Reza admitted he believed that the Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, knew about the exchange.
Turkey’s leadership vehemently denied the “accusations” and expressed great distaste over the case during the course of the trial. President Erdogan himself called the whole ordeal an American conspiracy that was to set-up Turkey via blackmail in an effort to blemish his country’s reputation. Under President Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian in nature. Turkey is a strategic partner of the U.S. in the Middle East and serves as a key logistical consolidation point for the majority of the United State’s military operations in the region.
During Atilla’s trial, his lawyer claimed his client was a, “hapless and helpless pawn,” that had been tricked into taking part in the conspiracy that had been orchestrated by his boss at Halbank. Unfortunately for Atilla, prosecutors had obtained phone recordings that proved Atilla had set up fake food and agricultural deals, in an effort to disguise transactions involving oil sales, for Iran.
After visiting the United States for business purposes last March was when Atilla was arrested and charged, Zarrab, the gold trader, was arrested during a vacation to Disney World in 2016 with his wife, a Turkish TV pop star, and their child. Prior to the trial, Turkish government officials branded Zarrab a “hostage” and made their extreme displeasure with the United States quite clear to the world during several public statements.
After his arrest, Zarrab employed ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in an attempt to have them act on his best interests and broker a deal for his release during meetings between President Erdogan and U.S. officials. When this “diplomatic” solution fail him, Zarrab agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and in doing so sealed Atilla’s fate.
Once called to the witness stand, Zarrab confessed to paying off government officials after he was previously arrested in 2013 in Turkey for a case of corruption. Huseyin Korkmaz, a former official with the Turkish police force, testified that despite his extensive investigation into Zarrab, and others involved with the gold for oil scheme, was shut down almost as quickly as it was brought up. He was arrested soon after and spent 18 months imprisoned in Turkey before escaping and fleeing the country with the evidence in tow. Relevant documents and recordings from that investigation were introduced during Attila’s trial.
In response to the original investigation and current U.S. prosecution, Turkey is claiming that the entire ordeal is a conspiracy put into effect by followers of a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan accused Gulen of being the mastermind who orchestrated the 2016 coup attempt by Turkish military factions. Despite Erdogan’s cries for extradition, the United States has refused all attempts because of the lack of supporting evidence for the claims. As Zarrab’s trial unfolded, Turkey’s official media outlet reported that Turkish prosecutors demanded the seizure of his assets in conjunction with a claim that Zarrab was spying for a foreign country. Local authorities also issued warrants for the detention of Zarrab’s wife, siblings and parents.
Featured image courtesy of AP