Turkish banker loses second bid for mistrial in US sanctions case
A U.S. judge on Jan. 2 refused to order a mistrial in the case of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the former deputy general manager at Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank who is charged with helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan federal court rejected arguments by Atilla’s lawyers that the trial was tainted when prosecutors asked Atilla, during a Dec. 19, 2017, cross-examination, whether he remembered that a report by a Turkish expert had concluded he violated sanctions.
Atilla’s lawyers objected before Atilla could answer, saying the question involved hearsay and “grossly mischaracterized” the Turkish expert’s conclusion. Berman told the jury to disregard it.
Atilla’s lawyers moved for a mistrial on Dec. 20, 2017.
Berman said on Jan. 2 that his instruction to the jury was enough to prevent any unfairness to Atilla, adding that a mistrial was an “extreme” outcome that should be avoided whenever possible. Berman had already denied another motion by Atilla for a mistrial earlier in the case.
Berman wrote that there was no necessity for a mistrial because Atilla “has received a thoroughly fair and transparent trial.” He noted that Atilla has a “very professional defense team” of over eight lawyers who are “alert and aggressive on behalf of their client.”
Jurors are expected to come to court on Jan. 3 for their fourth day of deliberations in the case, which has strained diplomatic relations between the United States and Turkey.
At the center of the three-week trial was testimony from Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty to charges of violating sanctions and testified for U.S. prosecutors.
Zarrab testified that Atilla helped design fraudulent gold and food transactions that allowed Iran to spend its oil and gas revenues abroad, including through U.S. financial institutions, defying U.S. sanctions.
Zarrab’s name was involved in Turkey’s Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption probes, which also embroiled four former ministers and other state officials. Zarrab was accused of paying bribes to senior government figures, but eventually the charges were quashed by the government, which said the probe was masterminded by followers of the U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.
Zarrab was arrested in the U.S. last year but as he became the prosecution’s top witness in the trial, Atilla is now the sole man in the dock accused of violating sanctions, bribery and money laundering.
Atilla has denied all of the charges against him. Halkbank has also denied taking part in any illegal transactions.
The first request for a mistrial came after jurors heard testimony from Hüseyin Korkmaz, a former fugitive Turkish police officer who said he led an investigation that included Atilla and who is currently sought over being a Gülenist in Turkey. Atilla’s lawyers said the testimony unfairly associated their client with political violence.
U.S. prosecutors charged nine people in the criminal case, though only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, were arrested by U.S. authorities.