Turkey's Halkbank pleads not guilty to helping Iran evade US sanctions

The state-run bank is also charged with embezzlement, conspiracy, money laundering and fraud

FILE PHOTO: A street vendor sells roasted chestnuts in front of a branch of Halkbank in central Istanbul, Turkey, January 10, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo
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Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank on Tuesday pleaded not guilty to criminal charges in a US federal court over accusations that it helped Iran evade US sanctions.

A federal court in New York city held an arraignment in the case of Halkbank, which is charged with embezzlement, conspiracy, money laundering, fraud and helping Iran evade sanctions.

The case has strained relations between the US and Turkey, and the bank pleaded not guilty against charges targeting its senior officials filed last October.

The bank is being accused of running a “brazen scheme” between 2012 and 2016 to evade US sanctions on Iran.

The indictment charged the bank with helping Iran spending revenues from oil and gas sales by using front companies and through knowledge and under protection of officials in both Iran and Turkey. Officials have allegedly received millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, according to the indictment.

Among those involved is Turkish-Iranian business mogul Reza Zarrab, who is accused of bribing senior Turkish officials, including a member of Mr Erdogan's cabinet, to help evade sanctions via Halkbank.

Also on Tuesday, Mr Trump called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the global coronavirus pandemic.

“President Trump and President Erdogan discussed ongoing efforts to combat the coronavirus in the United States and Turkey … agreed to work closely together on the international campaign to defeat the virus and bolster the global economy,” a readout by the White House said.  They also discussed Libya and Syria and a need for a ceasefire.

It was not reported whether they discussed the Halkbank case.

Last February, CNN reported that Mr Trump attempted to interfere in the proceedings and drop the charges.

“[US Attorney General William] Barr personally spearheaded an effort last year to negotiate a settlement with the bank that would have allowed it to sidestep an indictment after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed Trump in a bid to avoid charges,” CNN said.

The court hearing was held despite a growing coronavirus pandemic in New York.