The elephant in the New York courtroom
I must confess I am still under the influence of “post-Reza stress disorder,” having spent days in the New York courtroom watching him reveal his role in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
It has become crystal clear that once Zarrab gets an idea, he does whatever it takes to pursue that goal. In this case he was committed to revealing details of an illegal business, which he once did his best to conceal. By doing this he hopes to evade a life sentence.
But prosecutors appeared unwilling to allow him to reveal every single detail, especially when they submitted some of the evidence, which consisted of recorded wiretapped conversations and screenshots of WhatsApp messages implicating connections higher up. This unwillingness was the elephant in the room regarding Zarrab’s testimony, which came to an end on Dec. 7. At that moment, everyone felt this was probably the last time we would ever see him.
It was hard to understand why the prosecution would show the jury some WhatsApp messages between Zarrab and a person whose name was not revealed and who wrote: “The groom said the job should be done. He will talk to BB and call GM to resume the old system.” It was also strange that Zarrab was not questioned more fully on the subject, and that further evidence was not introduced. Zarrab said “the groom” was Berat Albayrak, now Turkey’s energy minister, while “BB” was then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and “GM” was the general manager of Halkbank. But that was it! No further questions were asked!
For Ankara, this is probably one of the reasons why the “once Zarrab, now Atilla case” is regarded as highly political. Their belief that they are being given “a certain message” is not baseless. In the absence of any legal proceedings against those big names – which were no sooner implicated than they were dropped in the courtroom - the motives of the prosecutors remain questionable.
That said, one should also remember that the trial is set to continue for several more weeks. Will the prosecution play the cards they are currently keeping close to their chest? It is too early to claim that the Turkish government’s nightmare is over. One of the biggest hurdles will be how the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) under the U.S. Treasury deals with any verdict in terms of its consequences for Halkbank (and possibly some other banks). Rumors suggest that Ankara is already preparing itself for a diplomatic fight on that front.
Secondly, there is no guarantee that the evidence presented during this case, together with Zarrab’s behind-the-scenes revelations, will not lead to a new indictment.
In the middle of this fuss stands Halkbank’s deputy general manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who happens to be the only person in U.S. custody able to link Zarrab’s story to the state-owned bank and by extension the Turkish state. I cannot tell what is going through the minds of the jurors, but for most of us in the audience Atilla is the unlucky victim of greedy superiors who did not give him as much as a lira for his troubles. It was almost heartbreaking to watch Atilla’s detention video at the JFK airport last March, which was submitted to the court as evidence.
It was striking to watch in that video a special FBI agent almost confirm what I felt. The agent explained to Atilla that he was being detained because they had evidence of his involvement in a scheme to avoid U.S. sanctions with Zarrab. This is what she said: “We understand that there are others who played a more significant role than you in this effort. And we believe that you have information about these people and their activities.”
One further piece of information concerning Atilla could be useful to put things in perspective. After the December 2013 corruption probes in Turkey, Atilla asked OFAC officials in October 2014 to put Zarrab on a sanctions list in order to prohibit any future dealings with him. So effectively a Turkish official was asking U.S. officials for help in avoiding top-down pressure to involve Halkbank in Reza’s vicious trade games… Clearly we should not need a verdict at a U.S. court to be ashamed.