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How A Trial In A Federal Courthouse In Manhattan Is Riveting The Turkish Government

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A trial in a federal courthouse in Manhattan has riveted the governing elite of Turkey. The defendant is a Turkish banker who is accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. But star witnesses have testified that the scheme was broader, possibly involving the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself. Erdogan, for his part, says the case is a U.S. plot to hurt Turkey's economy. There to catch us up on this trial is New York Times reporter Ben Weiser. Welcome to the program once again.

BEN WEISER: Hi, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: And first, what's alleged here against the banker, Hakan Atilla?

WEISER: Robert, the banker and eight others have been charged in a conspiracy that the government says was seeking to essentially allow Iran to smuggle billions of dollars of its oil for gold. And all this was done, the U.S. says, in violation of American sanctions on Iran.

SIEGEL: There was some pretty dramatic testimony on Monday by a former Turkish police investigator. He was testifying for the prosecution. What did he say?

WEISER: The fellow's name was Huseyin Korkmaz, and he was a supervisor in - for the police in Istanbul and back in 2012, began an inquiry into money laundering and bribery led by a fellow named Reza Zarrab, who has since become an American prosecution witness in the case. He said he made as much as $150 million in this scheme itself. He ultimately, as far as the government's concerned and based on his own testimony, essentially put this scheme together. And Korkmaz's investigation essentially began looking at Zarrab but then broadened and included several government ministers, the general manager of a big Turkish bank that the U.S. says was at the center of this scheme and even Turkey's then-prime minister and now president, Mr. Erdogan.

And Korkmaz, the police officer, talked about the investigation and how, in December 2013, in a very widely publicized action, there were arrests made of Zarrab and some of the others. Then within months, the Turkish government quickly had them released, quashed the investigation, and this officer and others were essentially purged. In this guy's case, he was reassigned to guard a bridge - he said put on bridge detail - and then was later sent to jail.

SIEGEL: How did this police officer get from Istanbul - or being put on bridge duty - to the United States and being a prosecution witness?

WEISER: Based on his testimony, when he was released from prison in February 2016, he told the jury that he did not feel legally secure in any way and decided to flee Turkey. But before he did, he collected as much of the evidence that their investigation had picked up and took it with him. And this involved everything from audio recordings, witness statements and other things in order to preserve the evidence. And then using a false passport, traveling through several different countries, he eventually arrived in the U.S. with the help of American law enforcement officials. And as he said from the stand, I took my wife and my daughter, and I left the country that I dearly love. And he still lives in the United States.

SIEGEL: What does the defense say about all of these allegations?

WEISER: Well, Atilla's lawyers are simply trying to make the case that he simply had no involvement and certainly no knowledge of this scheme. But the defense has not yet begun its case, and so we'll see more, presumably, about their position.

SIEGEL: You're covering a trial in a U.S. federal courtroom, but what you're getting really is - are allegations of massive corruption in a foreign country - in Turkey. It's a rather unusual trial, isn't it?

WEISER: It absolutely is. There's no question because you can see it in the Turkish media every day that this case is sending, you know, political tremors through Turkey. The president of Turkey, the foreign minister, the prime - they're all talking about it, and they're blaming the court. They're blaming the judge. They've long blamed the prosecutor's office here. And as you may have known, they've also blamed a group that, in Turkey, is viewed as a terrorist group, the Gulenists, for somehow fabricating all the evidence that was originally found by this officer and others in Turkey and is now at least a part of the government's case here.

SIEGEL: Ben Weiser of The New York Times is covering that trial in federal court in Manhattan. Thank you.

WEISER: Robert, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.