A New York jury on Wednesday convicted a Turkish banker for his role in helping Iran evade American sanctions at the end of a trial that roiled relations between Washington and Ankara amid allegations of corruption at the highest levels of political life in Turkey.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a senior executive at state-owned Halkbank, was found guilty of five charges, including conspiracy and bank fraud. He was found not guilty of money laundering.
The trial provoked huge intrigue in Turkey as the star prosecution witness described a complex scheme of money transfers worth billions of dollars, all lubricated by bribes to government figures.
The verdict is expected to further increase tension between the US and Turkey. Throughout the proceedings, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan railed against the numerous allegations which he said were part of American conspiracy to “blackmail” and “blemish” his country.
Atilla, 47, displayed no emotion as the verdict was read while his wife burst into tears in the public gallery.
Atilla denied all the charges and his lawyers sought to portray him as a “helpless pawn” and as a lowly bureaucrat who was not present at key meetings where the scheme was hatched.
However, prosecutors argued that his grasp of international sanctions was crucial to devising complicated financial manoeuvres that allowed Iran to access to billions of dollars in oil profits held in Turkish banks.
Joon Kim, the acting US attorney in Manhattan, said after the verdict: “Foreign banks and bankers have a choice: you can choose willfully to help Iran and other sanctioned nations evade US law, or you can choose to be part of the international banking community transacting in US dollars. But you can't do both.”
Nine people have been indicted in the US for their alleged roles in the scam, including a former Turkish minister of the economy.
Atilla, who was arrested last March when he flew into New York’s John F Kennedy airport, is the only one to have stood trial so far.
He had been due to appear alongside Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was arrested in Florida during the same month. However, Zarrab pleaded guilty and appeared instead as a prosecution witness, describing a string of fake gold and food deals which he used to disguise sanctions-busting money transfers.
Zarrab is married to Ebru Gundes, a Turkish pop star and TV personality. His jetset lifestyle has long been a staple of celebrity magazines and his presence guaranteed the trial was closely watched at home.
He described a sprawling scheme that he said included bribes to Turkish government officials and was carried out with the blessing of Mr Erdogan, who was then prime minister.
In New York, members of the Turkish diaspora filled the courtroom and a second room where the proceedings were relayed on closed circuit TV.
The case brought divisions from home to the New York court, highlighting as it did the country’s turbulent political climate.
The allegations had already been investigated in Turkey but the case dropped as part of a purge of the judiciary and law enforcement offices.
Government officials claimed the allegations were all part of a plot dreamed up by followers of Fetullah Gulen, a US-based Islamist cleric, to discredit Mr Erdogan’s administration.
The witnesses included Huseyin Korkmaz, a Turkish policeman, who investigated Zarrab’s ties to government officials in 2012 and 2013. He said he was jailed in retaliation for his work before fleeing to the US carrying his evidence with him.
His presence brought an extraordinary intervention by Judge Richard Berman, after the defence suggested Mr Korkmaz had been released from prison after Mr Gulen himself asked a Turkish judge to free those arrested.
“The defence appears quite willing to join a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory bandwagon, which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom,” said Mr Berman as he rejected a request for a retrial.
"For years, Mehmet Hakan Atilla conspired to use the American financial system to conduct millions of dollars’ worth of illegal transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Dana Boente. “He used his high rank at a Turkish bank to disguise the transactions as humanitarian food payments and deceive American officials, but now, after receiving due process of law, he has been held accountable in court, by an impartial jury."
Cathy Fleming, one of Atilla’s lawyers, said they planned to appeal. "This is only round one," she said.
Sentencing is scheduled for April 11.