Turkish-Iranian Gold Trader Testifies at U.S. Trial

Turkish Iranian
In this courtroom sketch, defense attorney Victor Rocco (L) gives his opening statement to the jury, as his client, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, right rear, listens from the defense table, on Tuesday. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

A wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader told a New York jury Wednesday that he began cooperating with U.S. authorities in an Iranian sanctions-evasion case after lawyers failed in efforts to free him with a prisoner exchange.

Reza Zarrab, soft-spoken and wearing tan scrubs, testified through a Turkish translator that he helped Iran evade U.S. sanctions that made it impossible for Iran to use the international banking system to process oil revenues. Zarrab, 34, identified his one-time co-defendant — Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla — as part of the conspiracy.

Zarrab said he pleaded guilty last month to seven charges, including conspiracy, violating U.S. sanctions, bank fraud, money laundering and paying a bribe to a prison guard to get alcohol and the use of a cellphone.

He acknowledged under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Sidhardha Kamaraju that he first hired lawyers earlier this year to try to arrange a prisoner swap, saying he did so “within the legal limits, of course.”

Those lawyers included former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Kamaraju asked him if the talks, which included a meeting with Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were successful.

“No,” Zarrab answered.

He said he had a meeting with the FBI after he decided to cooperate.

Prosecutors say Zarrab and Atilla laundered Iranian oil money in violation of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran in a conspiracy that involved bribes and kickbacks to high-level officials.

Atilla, a 47-year-old former deputy CEO of Halkbank, has pleaded not guilty. A lawyer for Atilla attacked Zarrab’s credibility Tuesday during opening statements, saying the trial is about Zarrab’s crimes.

Prosecutors had kept secret that Zarrab was cooperating in a bid for leniency.

As he testified, Zarrab described his 2016 arrest as he arrived in the U.S. for a trip to Disney World with his wife, Ebru Gundes, and daughter.

He said he initially lied to U.S. authorities when he was confronted with crimes.

“I did not know what I was facing and after a long trip I was shocked and I couldn’t give the right answers,” Zarrab said. “I was afraid.”

The prosecution in Manhattan has been major news in Turkey, where Erdogan has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release Zarrab.

Turkey’s deputy prime minister recently said Zarrab was a “hostage” being forced to testify against Turkey’s government.

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