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U.S. Jury To Begin Deliberating In High-Profile Iran Sanctions Case

A combo photo of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab (R) and banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla

A U.S. jury in Manhattan is due to begin deliberating on December 20 in a high-profile Iran sanctions trial that has implicated top Turkish officials while straining relations between the United States and its NATO ally.

U.S. prosecutors and defense lawyers delivered their closing arguments on December 19, with prosecutors alleging that the defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank, participated in a scheme to launder $1 billion of Iranian oil and gas revenues through U.S. banks in violation of U.S. sanctions.

The prosecution's case relied heavily on testimony from the accused mastermind of the scheme, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty to several charges and became the prosecution's star witness in a cooperation deal last month.

Zarrab testified that he bribed Turkish officials and worked with Atilla to carry out the sanctions evasion scheme, at first by laundering the Iranian oil revenues through gold trades, and later by disguising the transactions as food aid transfers that were exempt from the sanctions.

Zarrab's testimony implicated a former Turkish economy minister and other high-level officials with taking bribes, and he testified that even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aided in the scheme, which he said Atilla helped him organize.

Much of Zarrab's testimony was later corroborated by a Turkish police investigator who had led a Turkish investigation into the sanctions evasion scheme in 2013 that was later quashed by Erdogan's government.

Erdogan for months after Zarrab was arrested in March 2016 lobbied U.S. authorities to drop the case and release Zarrab.

But after Zarrab turned witness for the prosecution, Erdogan and his deputies charged that the case was "politically motivated" and aimed at bringing down his government.

Defense lawyers said that if Zarrab told the truth in his testimony, then their client Atilla is guilty. But they argued that Zarrab is a "liar and a briber" who cast blame on Atilla in hopes of evading a U.S. prison sentence himself.

Defense attorney Victor Rocco called Atilla an "honest, hard working man," who was "not corrupt" and, testimony showed, "has never been bribed."

"Hakan Atilla is a blameless pawn, collateral damage in a story that belongs in The Twilight Zone, not in American court," Rocco said.

Atilla took the stand for two and a half days, denying that he had ever been in "any meeting where violating the sanctions were discussed."

But U.S. prosecutors said Atilla had a history of lying himself, and was known to be Halkbank's "sanctions fixer."

Conviction of Atilla would likely further strain relations between Ankara and Washington, and could lead to U.S. sanctions on the Turkish banking sector, beginning with Halkbank, analysts said.

Halkbank has denied violating U.S. sanctions, saying it has "not been a party" to any "illegal" transaction.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters
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