Iran sanctions trial judge slams 'foreign conspiracy theory'

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NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Friday belittled a Turkey official's claims that a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania is behind a banker's trial in an Iran economic sanctions conspiracy, labeling it an "illogical foreign conspiracy theory."

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman commented as he rejected a defense mistrial request after a former Turkish police official testified he fled Turkey because he had discovered government corruption, resulting in his own arrest, and feared for his safety.

Defense lawyers for Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla said in court papers that testimony earlier this week by Huseyin Korkmaz was prejudicial and "guaranteed to inflame the jury against the defendant."

The judge accused a defense lawyer of joining "a rather far-fetched conspiracy theory bandwagon" by questioning Korkmaz, a former deputy police inspector in Istanbul, about cleric Fethullah Gulen, a green-card holder living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

Mahir Unal, a deputy chairman of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling party, recently described the New York trial as a "political" one lacking legal basis. Unal renewed a Turkish government claim that U.S. judicial officials were cooperating with Gulen's network against Turkey.

Erdogan has accused Gulen of being behind a botched coup and has sought his extradition. Gulen has denied the allegations, and U.S. officials have rebuffed Turkey's extradition demands, citing a lack of evidence.

When Korkmaz was questioned by a prosecutor as to whether he was released from a Turkish prison after Gulen sent the judge a letter, Korkmaz responded: "This sounds very illogical to me. I don't know Fethullah Gulen."

Asked if he was ever a member of the Gulen organization, he responded: "No, never."

The judge said the defense, which first raised the subject of Gulen, was attempting to introduce an "illogical foreign conspiracy theory" with no foundation in the record as a diversion from issues in the case. He called the tactic "unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional."

The development came after Atilla began testifying Friday in his defense, denying claims by prosecutors that he was the brains behind a scheme that began in 2011 as he and others at his employer, the state-run Halkbank, helped to launder billions of dollars in Iranian oil revenue.

Prosecutors say the FBI began investigating after the U.S. Department of the Treasury realized in 2013 that Atilla, wealthy gold trader Reza Zarrab and others were conspiring to use front companies, forged documents and fake transactions involving gold or humanitarian shipments of food to get around U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Iran.

Korkmaz testified that his investigation turned up evidence against three government ministers and Erdogan, who was then prime minister, but he did not have authority to build a case against them. After arrests were made in December 2013, the investigation was shut down and Erdogan dismissed police and prosecutors conducting the probe. Korkmaz was transferred and later arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half.

Zarrab, who has pleaded guilty to charges and testified against Atilla, said last week that he had paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to government officials and others in the scheme.

Korkmaz testified that he fled the country with his wife and child and gave evidence he smuggled out of the country to U.S. law enforcement officials after reaching the United States.

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