Turkish gold trader says he paid $45,000 bribe to US prison guard
Reza Zarrab (Youtube)

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Turkish-Iranian gold trader testifying in the trial of a Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions said on Tuesday that he paid a $45,000 bribe to a U.S. prison guard to obtain alcohol and use the guard's phone.

Reza Zarrab, who is cooperating with prosecutors, testified that he got the money through a Turkish attorney whom he did not identify. Zarrab said he used the guard's phone to speak with his wife, daughter and lawyer.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at Turkey's state-owned Halkbank, is on trial in Manhattan federal court. He has pleaded not guilty.

Zarrab testified on Tuesday under cross-examination by Atilla's attorney, Cathy Fleming, that he and Atilla did not like each other.

Zarrab said he worked with Halkbank from 2012 to 2016 to help Iran spend its oil and gas revenue abroad using fraudulent gold and food transactions. He said Atilla helped structure those transactions.

Halkbank said last week that it had not taken part in any illegal transactions.

Under questioning by Fleming, Zarrab said he attended meetings with Atilla a "handful" of times during that period. He said he had a "close relationship" with Suleyman Aslan, who was Halkbank's general manager and Atilla's superior until 2013. Zarrab said he sometimes complained about Atilla to Aslan.

Zarrab had testified earlier in the case that he complained to Aslan when Atilla refused to sign off on a transaction related to a sham sale of food to Iran.

Under direct examination last week, Zarrab testified that at that time, Atilla did not know the transaction was a sham and so was confused by it.

Zarrab said he paid bribes to Aslan, repeating his testimony in direct examination, but never to Atilla.

Reuters was not immediately able to reach Aslan for comment.

Prosecutors have charged nine people in the case with conspiring to help Iran evade sanctions, but only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by U.S. authorities. Prosecutors disclosed last week that Zarrab pled guilty in October to helping Iran avoid sanctions and bribing a guard.

Zarrab testified on Tuesday that in return for his guilty plea prosecutors said he would not be charged with lying to law enforcement officers after his arrest and smoking synthetic marijuana in jail.

He told the court that he admitted to U.S. prosecutors that he had paid bribes in Turkey, misstated his Turkish income between 2002 and 2016 and procured prostitutes for other people around 2013. He said prosecutors told him he would not be charged for those crimes because they were outside U.S. jurisdiction.

Zarrab has accused Turkish politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions. Erdogan on Sunday dismissed the case as a politically motivated attack on Turkey.

On Thursday CNN Turk reported that Erdogan had said Turkey did not violate U.S. sanctions. [A4N1L2024]

(Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Additional reporting by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Alden Bentley, Toni Reinhold)