Government’s Star Witness in Sanctions Case to Be Grilled About Saying He Might Lie to Get Out of Jail

Reza Zarrab orchestrated a scheme to let Turkey do business with Iran, then flipped. The prosecution's case could be tainted after a judge said his recorded calls are fair game.

Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty

Recorded jailhouse calls of the U.S. government’s key witness in an Iran-sanctions case will be allowed to be used to discredit him, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, architect of an alleged scheme to let Turkey buy oil from Tehran despite sanctions, was heard suggesting to acquaintances that he was willing to lie to get out of jail.

“Reza says in such a country, in order to get out or get a reduced sentence, you need to admit to crimes you haven't committed,” an English-language summary of the call read. “He once again mentions that in America in order to make it out of prison you need to admit to something you haven't committed.”

Zarrab is testifying against his co-defendant Mehmet Hakan Atilla and Atilla’s lawyers briefly placed the summaries on the public court docket Monday. The summaries were quickly taken down, however, because the conversations were still subject to a protective order signed by the judge. Atilla’s lawyers alleged prosecutors missed a deadline to supply them with evidence but prosecutors disputed the suggestion they had missed the deadline.  

Judge Richard Berman ordered paperwork for both sides be made public on Tuesday, adding that the phone conversations taped in October and November 2016 “may be used for impeachment.” (In U.S. courts, the term “impeachment” refers to questioning the credibility of a witness’s testimony.)

Reza says in such a country, in order to get out or get a reduced sentence, you need to admit to crimes you haven't committed.
Summary or Zarrab's jailhouse call

The prosecution’s case against Atilla relies heavily on Zarrab, who is on the stand for the fifth day on Tuesday, outlining the contours of his sanctions-dodging scheme for the jury.

Already, Zarrab has outlined how he used his network of companies, and a number of Turkish banks, to confuse transactions and use money to pay Iran’s international debts, in violation of international sanctions. He testified that he bribed former Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan to carry out the scheme, as well as the head of the state-owned Halkbank, Suleyman Aslan.

But Zarrab also alleged that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally signed off on the use of Turkish banks in the scheme while he was the country’s prime minister.

Zarrab’s credibility was a major focus of a cross-examination by Atilla’s lawyers, which began midday Tuesday. Attorney Cathy Fleming grilled Zarrab about his attempts to free himself, his cooperation agreement, and his relationship with Atilla.

“You never paid a bribe to Mr. Atilla, right?” she asked.

“No, I have never paid bribes to Mr. Atilla, ever,” Zarrab answered.

Indeed, Zarrab’s interactions with Atilla made up a small fraction of his four days of testimony on behalf of the prosecution. Zarrab’s spent much of the time explaining his conversations with Aslan, the head of Halkbank, as well as employees of his own companies.