Mehmet Hakan Atilla is depicted in a court room sketch. Photo: Reuters / Jane Rosenberg
Mehmet Hakan Atilla is depicted in a court room sketch. Photo: Reuters / Jane Rosenberg

A high-profile corruption trial that began last month in New York is ruffling increasing numbers of feathers in the palace of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Big names are being dropped during the hearings – with Erdogan himself topping the list. All stand accused, in varying degrees, of fraud, money laundering, and violating US sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Of the nine Turkish suspects, two are presently in US custody: Reza Zarrab, 34, and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47.

The first is a jet-set playboy and gold trader who owns private yachts and planes, a stable of Arabian horses, and a US$10 million art collection. So wealthy is Iranian-born Zarrab, in fact, that his driver was arrested in 2011 carrying US$150 million in cash while traveling from Turkey to Russia. His father was a friend of the former Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, with whom Zarrab corresponded and complained about American “world-devouring imperialism.”

Zarrab was also close to President Erdogan, who granted him “exceptional citizenship” back in 2007, reportedly against a bribe of US$1.5 million USD paid to the Turkish Cabinet of Ministers. He was arrested for the first time in Turkey back in December 2013, accused of bribing three ministers in the Erdogan government: Interior Minister Muammer Guler (US$10 million); Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis (US$1.5 million), and Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan (US$52 million).

They were charged with helping sell Iranian oil in exchange for gold, and then channeling the goods back to Iran through front companies in China, Turkey, and the Gulf. The case was sent to the Turkish Parliament, with recommendations to lift their immunity, but the move was blocked by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). At the time, Zarrab was the darling of the Erdogan entourage: he had even donated US$4.5 million to a charity led by the then-Prime Minister’s wife. The investigations were subsequently dropped, although all three ministers were either retired or asked to resign.

Zarrab himself was released in February 2014, only to land in a US jail when visiting Miami in March 2016 – on the very same charges. If convicted by New York’s Federal Court, he could face up to 75 years in jail.

Reza Zarrab is pictured being escorted to police headquarters in Istanbul in 2013. Photo: Anadolu Agency

Zarrab was due to stand as the main defendant in the case but struck a deal with the prosecutor that has turned him into a star witness against the more recently arrested Atilla, the Executive Vice-President of the state run Halkbank. He was jailed during a business trip to the US in March, and many believe that he will be scapegoated and convicted — and that, due to his enormous wealth and political connections, Zarrab will be set free after a short jail term.

In October, Zarrab acknowledged that he had masterminded the sanctions evasion scheme, but claimed Atilla was the man who carried it out. No footage has been produced of Atilla taking bribes or engaging in illegal conduct. Zarrab, however, is being defended by two of the best lawyers money can buy in the United States: Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, and Michael B. Bukassey, former Attorney General under President George W. Bush.

In court, Atilla has denied conspiring with Zarrab to channel Iranian oil money through US banks. Zarrab claims that he witnessed Suleyman Aslan, the General Manager of Halkbank, call Atilla in April 2013, with orders to make an illegal transaction. Atilla denies this, saying that he was on a plane headed for Barcelona on the day in question and did not have phone access onboard. Documents presented by Turkish Airlines
confirm his story, rather than Zarrab’s.

Two additional developments have added spice to the whole ordeal. One is a new charge in the US, from a former cellmate in jail who claims that Zarrab raped him — once with a cucumber. Second is the testimony of Korkmaz

Atilla also denies that his is the voice in a recording presented in court as being a conversation between him and Zarrab.

The case has already strained ties between the US and Turkey, whose president is inching closer, day-by-day, to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. A spokesman for the Turkish government has said the entire case is a “plot against Turkey.”

According to Turkish sources, Erdogan personally lobbied the previous US administration of Barack Obama for the release of Zarrab, fearing that he would tell all in court, but that he was rebuffed by Vice President Joe Biden in September 2016. The following month, Turkish Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag met US Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, also to lobby for Zarrab’s release. And on Friday of last week, Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul sent a letter to US Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions, demanding the extradition of Huseyin Korkmaz, the former Turkish police investigator who was tasked with leading the probe into Zarrab’s misconduct back in 2013, and branding him a “terror suspect facing serious allegations.”

Erdogan has seized all of Zarrab’s assets in Turkey and rounded up at least 17 of his associates and family members. So eager is he to have Zarrab back in Turkey, in fact, that he has offered to swap him for Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who was arrested in the witch-hunt that followed last year’s failed coup attempt.

Two additional developments have added spice to the whole ordeal. One is a new charge in the US, from a former cellmate in jail who claims that Zarrab raped him — once with a cucumber. Second is the testimony of Korkmaz, who, when he was in the verge of implicating Erdogan back in 2014 quickly found himself transferred from his job as a crime investigator to a new post guarding bridges, before being moved to a faraway province, then later arrested and jailed for more than a year.

When released on bail, Korkmaz fled Turkey and moved to the US. His testimony is damning for both Zarrab and Erdogan – whose supporters in Ankara are now saying, of course, that he is another coup conspirator and terrorist.

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