Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Turkish Officials Angry Over Conviction Of Turkish Banker In U.S. Court


The Turkish government is angry with the U.S. over a court case that wrapped up in New York yesterday. A federal jury convicted a Turkish banker in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. But it was the testimony alleging high-ranking corruption in the Turkish government that's really hit a nerve.

NPR's Peter Kenyon joins us now from Istanbul. And, Peter, what have Turks been saying about this case today?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, uniformly negative comments, Robert. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already called this trial politically motivated. And after the verdict was announced a presidential spokesman chimed in, calling it a scandalous verdict in a scandalous case. The Foreign Ministry followed, calling it unjust, unfair, a clear case of interference in Turkey's domestic affairs. And then the Justice Ministry said the verdict is without legal value and null and void. So I think it's safe to say Turkey's not happy about this.

SIEGEL: A lot of words there. Has the government of Turkey taken any official action?

KENYON: They have set one response in motion. A court has issued an arrest warrant, and there will be an extradition request made for an ex-Turkish policeman who was one of the people testifying at this trial in New York. He was quoted as saying he brought evidence to the New York prosecutors including documents, wiretaps. All of this came from big 2013 corruption probes here in Turkey. They involved some of the same allegations. And they initially brought several resignations from the Cabinet, but then the government just pushed back.

They fired the police, reassigned prosecutors. They declared all that evidence was fake and it was all the work of this U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. He's the guy that, by the way, they charge with the failed coup attempt from 2016. So from Ankara's point of view, this is all a political case. And what they're saying by extension is that much of the U.S. judiciary must be in league with this Erdogan foe, Fethullah Gulen.

SIEGEL: Now, in addition to the police official, another main witness in the case in New York was a Turkish gold trader who has cooperated with the U.S. government. He pleaded in order to cooperate. Tell us about him. Tell us about Mr. Zarrab.

KENYON: Yes, Reza Zarrab - quite a turn. He was close to the Erdogan family, other Turkish leaders, married to a pop star. He was, in fact, the main defendant at this trial. And then he cut, as you mentioned, this deal with prosecutors. He started testifying about how he had bribed Turkish officials and others to the tune of $50 million or more. And all of a sudden, the only person left in the dock was Mehmet Hakan Atilla, this official with Halkbank, a banking executive. He's the one who has actually been convicted.

SIEGEL: Is this case doing anything to U.S.-Turkey relations, which haven't been that great lately anyway?

KENYON: Well, I think that's a good point. This is one of a number of sore points in ties between Ankara and Washington. I mean, it remains to be seen if this verdict in particular is going to have a big impact. I mean, what if it's followed up now by big fines against some of these Turkish banks? That could have economic and political repercussions here. Turkey's already spent much of the past year drifting away from Washington and Europe and closer to Russia and Iran. So I think this verdict certainly isn't going to reverse that trend. We'll have to see if it actually accelerates it.

SIEGEL: This trial in New York City in federal court hasn't exactly been front page stuff in the United States. In Turkey, has it been covered heavily?

KENYON: Yes, it has. It's gotten a lot of coverage. And then at a certain point, when it became clear that Reza Zarrab was turning evidence and talking, it got very quiet all of a sudden. And now the negative responses are coming out.

SIEGEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, Robert.


Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.