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Gold trader says he paid bribes to get out of Turkish jail after 2013 arrest

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Turkish-Iranian gold trader testifying at the trial of a Turkish bank executive in a New York federal court said Monday that he paid bribes to secure his release from jail in Turkey following his arrest in 2013.

FILE PHOTO - Turkey's Halkbank headquarters is seen in Ankara August 15, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The trader, Reza Zarrab, has pleaded guilty to charges that he schemed to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions, and is testifying for U.S. prosecutors against Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank on trial for related charges.

Halkbank has said all of its transactions complied with national and international regulations.

Zarrab said he made payments to secure his release in February 2014 after he was arrested in a corruption investigation, and that those payments were “partly” bribes. He did not say how large the payments were or who received them.

Representatives of the Turkish government could not immediately be reached for comment.

Zarrab testified that he worked with Halkbank on behalf of Iran both before and after his arrest in Turkey, and continued to do so until his U.S. arrest in March 2016. He said that Atilla continued participating in the scheme as well.

Victor Rocco, a lawyer for Atilla, told jurors in his opening statement last week that Atilla did not take part in any scheme.

Earlier on Monday, Atilla’s lawyers said in a letter to U.S. District Judge Richard Berman that prosecutors improperly delayed turning over evidence that could help their client until late Saturday night.

They said the evidence included a summary of a Sept. 15, 2016 call between Zarrab, then held in a U.S. jail, and an individual identified only as Ahad. In the call summary, Zarrab told Ahad that “you need to admit to crimes you haven’t committed” to get a reduced sentence in the United States.

The letter was later removed from online court records without explanation.

Atilla’s lawyers said the call showed that Zarrab was willing to lie in exchange for leniency.

“Mr. Zarrab understands his obligation to provide fully truthful testimony,” Robert Anello, a lawyer for Zarrab, said in an email on Monday.

A spokesman for the prosecutors declined to comment.

Prosecutors have charged nine defendants with taking part in a scheme that involved gold trades and fake purchases of food to give Iran access to international markets, violating U.S. sanctions. Only Zarrab, 34, and Atilla, 47, have been arrested by U.S. authorities.

Zarrab’s testimony has implicated top Turkish politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has claimed that his political opponents are behind both the U.S. case and the Turkish case that led to Zarrab’s 2013 arrest.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Friday that the U.S. case was an attempt to undermine Turkey’s economy, and the state-run Anadolu news agency reported that Turkey would seize Zarrab’s assets.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Alden Bentley and Mary Milliken