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Turkey targets riches of U.S. witness who named Erdogan in scheme

Reza Zarrab implicated Turkish President Recep Erdogan in a money-laundering scheme. A day later, Turkey announced it's seizing his assets.
Image: In this courtroom sketch, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, center, testifies before Judge Richard Berman
In this courtroom sketch, Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, center, testifies before Judge Richard Berman, right, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017 in New York. At left is an interpreter.Elizabeth Williams / via AP

A day after the star witness in a U.S. sanctions-busting trial implicated Turkey's president in the scheme, the top prosecutor in Istanbul announced plans to seize the witnesses' assets.

Reza Zarrab made a fortune by orchestrating the secret movement of Iranian oil money through U.S. banks, according to court papers.

The news of the seizure was first reported by Turkish state-owned media.

Zarrab has a fleet of luxury cars, yachts, and a $10 million art collection. But now authorities in his homeland are laying claim to what he and and his pop-star wife own under a charge that he spilled state secrets.

Reza ZarrabOzan Kose / AFP - Getty Images file

News of the move broke hours after Zarrab testified in Manhattan federal court that Turkish President Recep Erdogan ordered two banks to take part in his money-laundering scheme in 2012.

Erdogan has denied violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. His supporters claim the trial playing out in New York is a theatrical sham fueled by Erdogan's rival, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania — a charge U.S. prosecutors denounced as ridiculous.

The trial has sparked a furor in Turkey and strained relations with the United States. The courtroom has been filled with Turkish journalists and spectators who hang on Zarrab's every word, waiting for him to name names.

But despite the international impact of the trial, not everyone has been enthralled. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman noted that one of the jurors has been steadily snoozing since the trial began.

"Today almost all day," Berman said. "And really sound asleep!"

He noted that during jury selection, the man was asked what he liked to do in his free time and his answer was "Sleep."

Berman said the juror seemed like a "nice fellow" but would be excused and replaced by an alternate when the trial resumes on Monday.

The trial centers on allegations that Turkish government and banking officials conspired in a multibillion-dollar operation to move Iranian money through U.S. banks using phony documents, dummy companies and massive bribes.

People walk past a branch of the Turkish Halk Bank on Nov. 27, 2017 in Istanbul.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Much of the testimony has revolved around complex banking transactions illustrated by poster-board diagrams and transcripts of translated phone calls.

In the most dramatic moment of the trial so far, Zarrab told the court that a senior government official on his bribe payroll told him that Erdogan, then prime minister, wanted two more banks to start making illegal Iranian trades.

"Mr. Prime Minister and Ali Babacan [the Turkish treasury minister] gave approval. It's finished already," Zarrab said on a phone call captured by a wiretap, according to a transcript shown to jurors.

On Friday, the judge told prosecutors they should also play the audio of that "sensitive" call, which was in Turkish, to quell any questions about its authenticity.

"I don't think that information should be lightly put out there," Berman said. He later added, "I don't want anyone just casually making those references."

Zarrab, the linchpin of the money-laundering operation, was originally the lead defendant in the federal case. But he cut a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty and is now the star witness against Hakan Atilla, the deputy general manager of Halkbank, which the Turkish government owns.

Atilla's attorneys say he is a lowly dupe being blamed for the actions of corrupt higher-ups who are not on trial because they are still in Turkey.