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Turkish banker in Iran case a ‘pawn in cosmic game of chess,’ defense says

Closing arguments begin in trial of Hakan Atilla, accused in the multibillion-dollar sanctions-busting scheme that has roiled U.S.-Turkey relations.

In this courtroom sketch, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza

In this courtroom sketch, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, center, testifies before Judge Richard Berman, right, that he helped Iran evade U.S. economic sanctions with help from Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, Nov. 29, 2017. At left is an interpreter. Photo Credit: AP / Elizabeth Williams

A defense lawyer called the Turkish banker charged in a multibillion-dollar Iran sanctions-busting case a “pawn in a cosmic game of chess” during summations Tuesday in the Manhattan federal court trial that has roiled U.S.-Turkey relations.

Halkbank manager Hakan Atilla is accused of aiding a scheme masterminded by multimillionaire gold trader Reza Zarrab, a star cooperating witness at a trial that featured testimony about bribes and corruption implicating Turkish President Recep Erdogan and former government ministers.

Defense lawyer Victor Rocco told jurors that Atilla aided Zarrab only because he was a bank customer, didn’t know Halkbank was being used to launder Iranian oil money through gold and food transactions, and unlike others in the scheme hadn’t even been accused of taking bribes.

“His crime was doing his job,” Rocco said. “Hakan Atilla is a blameless pawn, collateral damage in a story that belongs in the twilight zone, not in an American courtroom.”

Zarrab’s arrest last year in Florida triggered diplomatic protests from Erdogan, who says the case was trumped up by a dissident Turkish cleric living in the United States. The trial also featured testimony from a Turkish police officer who fled when his probe of the scheme was quashed in a purge.

The trial lasted 3 1/2 weeks, and jurors are expected to begin deliberations on Wednesday.

Prosecutors disputed Rocco’s suggestion that Zarrab was the most culpable player and the government was using Atilla as a vehicle for a trial that would embarrass Erdogan, arguing the banker was a sanctions expert who played a critical role in designing the scheme and deflecting U.S. financial regulators.

“He’s a fixer,” said prosecutor Sidhardha Kamaraju. “That’s what he is. When there’s a problem, he fixed it.”

Zarrab testified at trial that he made $100 to $150 million in profit from the scheme, which operated from 2012 to 2015. Before he cut a deal with the government, according to court filings, he said in a recorded jailhouse call he might have to lie about what he did to get out of jail, but that was not admitted as evidence.

In addition to Zarrab and Atilla, seven other Turks have been charged in the scheme, but none are in U.S. custody.

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