A Turkish bank executive on trial in New York over violating U.S. sanctions on Iran has denied having links with Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab in his first interrogation after being arrested in the U.S.
Daily Hürriyet has obtained footage of former Halkbank deputy general manager Mehmet Hakan Atilla being interrogated by FBI agents Jennifer McReynolds and Scott Giessler on March 27 immediately after his arrest.
The footage starts with McReynolds and Giessler showing their IDs to Atilla, who speaks in English at the start of the interrogation but later switches to Turkish.
When the agents tell him the reason for his arrest is because of his relations to Zarrab, Atilla repeatedly murmurs the words “unbelievable” and “impossible.”
“You were detained today because we have evidence about your involvement with Reza and his efforts to avoid U.S. sanctions,” McReynolds tells Atilla at the beginning of the interrogation, to which the former bank executive replies by saying: “I don’t want to say anything.”
“I’m detained already,” Atilla says, before Giessler corrects him by saying that he is actually under arrest.
“There is a warrant for your arrest. You are under arrest for activities related to Reza Zarrab,” Giessler tells Atilla, who starts speaking Turkish after that point.
“What can I say? This sounds meaningless to me. They [the agents] need to explain. I have no personal relationship with Zarrab. He was dealing with the bank. It’s not related to me personally, it’s related to the bank,” Atilla says in Turkish.
“If it was related to me, what business would I have in the U.S.? Do I look like a stupid [person]?” he then adds.
Zarrab’s name was involved in Turkey’s December 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.
Prosecutors have charged nine people in the case with conspiring to help Iran evade sanctions, but only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by U.S. authorities.
The footage of the interrogation then shows Atilla being searched by an FBI agent and the former executive continues to deny having any links to Zarrab.
When the FBI agents tell Atilla that they have tapes of phone conversations between him and Zarrab, Atilla says: “Do your best.”
“I’m a government official. So they will probably want to follow this case too,” he adds.
Meanwhile, Zarrab’s cross-examination continued on Dec. 6, with Atilla’s lawyer Cathy Fleming asking questions to the Turkish-Iranian businessman to prove that her client wasn’t at the center of the sanctions violation scheme.
“I went to individuals that were much higher than Mr. Hakan Atilla, ma’am,” Zarrab told Fleming during the hearing, while also acknowledging telling prosecutors that he was “shocked” when he learned Atilla had been arrested in the U.S.
Fleming introduced a series of telephone calls showing that Zarrab relied more closely on other Halkbank executives, especially Levent Balkan.
In one call with Zarrab, Balkan is heard saying he’d approve certain transactions, while in another Zarrab and Balkan agree to discuss something “face-to-face” rather than over the phone. Zarrab then testified there were no recorded conversations where he agreed to meet “face-to-face” with Atilla.
In another call, Zarrab is heard lying to Atilla, telling him he was shipping food to Iran under allowable humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions regime, when in fact no food was actually being shipped. Zarrab admitted deceiving Atilla, and said Atilla at that time had no idea the transactions were fake.
Zarrab also admitted that he told an employee to buy a watch for an official who was otherwise unwilling to accept a cash bribe.
“Everyone who is inclined to be bribed has a price,” Zarrab told Fleming.