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Sanctions trial: Will Turkish banker Hakan Atilla take stand?

Turkish banker Hakan Atilla listened to gold trader Reza Zarrab testify against him for seven days in a U.S. sanctions case.
Image: People walk past a branch of the Turkish Halk Bank
People walk past a branch of the Turkish Halk Bank on Nov. 27, 2017 in Istanbul.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

For seven days, Turkish banker Hakan Atilla sat in a wood-paneled New York courtroom and listened as a playboy gold trader portrayed him as the architect of a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions.

Now Atilla has to decide whether to take the stand in his own defense.

His attorneys indicated Thursday that he wanted to testify under oath, but left often the possibility that he could change his mind overnight.

U.S. prosecutors say Halkbank executives helped move Iranian money through American banks.Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Defense lawyer Cathy Fleming said the risky move would not signal any concern that the prosecution is winning the case after two weeks of testimony from government witnesses.

"People go on the stand because they know they're innocent and want to be heard," she told reporters.

Prosecutors allege that Atilla, the deputy general manager of Turkish government-owned Halkbank, was the architect of a scheme to move billions in Iranian oil and gas money through American banks in violation of U.S. sanctions.

There were eight other people indicted with him but seven are still in Turkey and one, gold trader Reza Zarrab, cut a deal with the government and turned star witness against Atilla.

Zarrab, who is married to a Turkish pop star, testified that he paid tens of millions in bribes to government and bank officials, forged documents for phantom shipments of chicken and olive oil, and pocketed $150 million himself.

He also implicated Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who has denied doing anything wrong and claims the prosecution is a conspiracy by the U.S. to weaken his government. Two of Zarrab's lawyers, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, went to Turkey to try to orchestrate a prisoner swap to get him off the hook, he testified.

In seven days on the stand, Zarrab alleged that Atilla devised the method used to launder the Iranian money. But he also admitted he paid Atilla no bribes, met him only a few times and did not have his phone number in his contacts.

Atilla was caught on a wiretap that was part of a trove of evidence in a 2013 Turkish corruption probe that was stolen and smuggled out of the country by an Istanbul police officer to be used by U.S. prosecutors.

Reza Zarrab in Istanbul in 2013.Ozan Kose / AFP - Getty Images file

But it was Atilla's boss at Halkbank, General Manager Suleyman Aslan, whose name is most prominent in recorded calls, text messages and emails.

Atilla's defense team has tried to suggest that there was barely any contact between their client and Zarrab. Taking the stand would allow him to tell the jury that in his own words but also open him to a tough cross-examination.

As the government moved to wrap up its case on Thursday prosecutors played a snippet of video of Atilla's arrest in New York in 2016.

On the video, U.S. agents told him he was under arrest because of involvement in Zarrab's fraud operation. "I have no personal relationship with Zarrab. Zarrab was dealing with the bank," Atilla protested.

The agents tried unsuccessfully to get Atilla to dish on others allegedly involved in the conspiracy. "We understand there are others who played a more significant role in this," one agent told the banker.