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U.S. Indicts Turkey’s Halkbank for Illegal Transfer of Billions of Dollars to Iran

By Harut Sassounian

Halkbank, whose majority shareholder is the Turkish government, pleaded not guilty in New York on March 31, 2020, to criminal charges that it helped Iran illicitly transfer tens of billions in dollars and gold, wrote Aykan Erdemir and Philip Kowalski in an essay published on April 3 by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute based in Washington, D.C.

On October 15, 2019, the Federal Southern District Court of New York accused Halkbank of “fraud, money-laundering and sanctions offenses,” alleging that Halkbank and its executives aided Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran.”

Initially, Halkbank refused to appear in court “claiming that the criminal charges are beyond the U.S. court’s jurisdiction,” Erdemir and Kowalski wrote. However, when “prosecutors proposed escalating contempt fines which could have totaled $1.8 billion after eight weeks,” the bank agreed to respond to the court charges.

Originally, the Turkish and Iranian officials had concocted a scheme to exchange gas for gold to circumvent the U.S. sanctions, by claiming that the gold was headed not to Iranian government entities but to Iran’s “private sector.” Erdemir and Kowalski stated that “the scheme ultimately yielded the Iranian regime some $13 billion in Turkish gold between 2012 and 2013. Once the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to close the ‘golden loophole’ in 2013, Iran used Turkish front companies to issue invoices for fake transactions of food and medicine that fall under the humanitarian exception to U.S. sanctions. In one infamous case of over-invoicing, a Turkey-based luxury yacht company used Halkbank to sell nearly 5.2 tons of brown sugar to Iran’s Bank Pasargad at the price of approximately $240 per pound.”

This scheme was first exposed in December 2013 by Turkish investigators who implicated then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, several of his ministers and other senior officials, including Halkbank’s managers. Erdogan shut down the probe by firing the police officials, prosecutors and judges!

The scandal resurfaced in March 2016 when Iranian-Turkish ring-leader Reza Zarrab was arrested in Miami after he flew to Florida to visit Disney World with his family.

In March 2017, U.S. authorities arrested Halkbank Deputy CEO Mehmet Hakan Atilla upon his arrival in New York. Zarrab pleaded guilty and agreed to testify in court against Atilla. Zarrab confessed that he had bribed senior Turkish ministers and top Halkbank executives. He even implicated Erdogan in the corruption scheme, stating that Erdogan had personally approved the illegal actions.

“Halkbank’s Atilla received a 32-month prison sentence in May 2018, a significantly shorter one than prosecutors had originally sought,” according to Erdemir and Kowalsky. “After Atilla’s return to Turkey, Erdogan rewarded the convicted sanctions buster by appointing him CEO of the Istanbul stock exchange, following the president’s established pattern of rewarding other senior accomplices of Zarrab with cushy appointments.”

Erdogan personally appealed to Pres. Trump and other senior officials to block the court case of Halkbank, claiming that US courts have no right to try Turkish citizens. The Courthouse News Service reported that “One of Zarrab’s shell companies, Royal Holding A.S., listed its address as a 35th floor unit in Trump Towers Istanbul. Before pleading guilty to money laundering, sanctions evasions and bribery, Zarrab retained Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to lead a campaign of shadow diplomacy that echoed the one in Ukraine. Shuttling between Turkey’s capital of Ankara and the White House, Giuliani met with Erdogan, Trump, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and other senior U.S. and Turkish officials in an attempt to negotiate a prisoner swap. The New York Times reported that Tillerson resisted the White House pressure for a deal that would have effectively killed the Zarrab case.”

Erdogan’s and Giuliani’s efforts succeeded in stalling the prosecution for almost two years, but ultimately failed when the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York went forward with the charges last October.”

Senator Ron Wyden, the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat, told Courthouse News Service: “It sure looked like Donald Trump was doing the bidding of Erdogan and Giuliani, and there were real questions about whether this was about getting Halkbank off the hook, even though there were allegations that they were orchestrating the largest sanctions evasion scheme in history.”

During President Trump’s Senate impeachment inquiry earlier in 2020, Senators Wyden, Robert Menendez and Sherrod Brown asked a joint question which was read aloud in the Senate by Chief Justice John Roberts: “Has the president engaged in a pattern of conduct in which he places his personal and political interests on top of the national security interests of the United States?”

Wyden told Courthouse News Service: “Donald Trump has significant financial interest in Turkey,” referring to Trump Towers Istanbul. “We read regularly that his family has forged personal relationships with important Turkish officials. And so, you have to ask — which is what is part of our inquiry — whether the Trump policy toward Turkey is in a significant way colored by his personal and political interests and not the national security of the country.” If Halkbank is found guilty of violating U.S. sanctions, the court could impose a hefty penalty, regardless of Tump’s wishes.

Florida Armenians Meets With Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan in Washington

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Taniel Koushakjian, Serzh Sargsyan, Bryan Ardouny

Last week, Florida Armenians Managing Editor Taniel Koushakjian sat down with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan during his trip to Washington, D.C. Sargsyan travelled to the U.S. to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City where he delivered an impassioned speech about the need for international condemnation of Azerbaijan military attacks against Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh that has recently claimed several lives, including three Armenian female civilians, in the last few weeks.

From New York, President Sargsyan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian, Presidential Chief of Staff Vigen Sargsyan, and Armenian Ambassador to the U.S. Tigran Sargsyan, travelled to Washington, D.C. for a series of meetings with Armenian American community leaders. Koushakjian shared with Sargsyan activities of the Armenian community in Florida marking the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Koushakjian explained that Florida is one of 43 states that has acknowledged the 1915 Armenian Genocide by Ottoman Turkey, which was last proclaimed by former Governor Jeb Bush in 2006. Although Florida recognizes the Armenian Genocide, it does not have an official curriculum mandated by the state to teach the Armenian Genocide. Sargsyan inquired if the presidential candidate was aware of his strong record on the Armenian Genocide, which Koushakjian assured him was the case.

In that regard, Koushakjian talked about efforts by Florida Armenians and the Armenian Assembly of America to advance Armenian Genocide education in the Sunshine State despite lack of a state mandate. For instance, in April of this year Koushakjian presented an Armenian Genocide exhibit entitled “Iconic Images of the Armenian Genocide” at the Holocaust Museum of Southwest Florida (HMSWFL). In the lead up to the presentation, the Turkish Consulate in Miami wrote a threatening letter to the HMSWL objecting to the presentation and demanding it be canceled. Koushakjian explained to Sargsyan that Armenian Genocide denial exists around almost every street corner in America and that grassroots efforts promoting genocide education are vital to ensuring a future free of mass atrocities.

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Taniel Koushakjian meets Armenia’s President Serzh Sargsyan

In addition, Koushakjian thanked Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian for his efforts to confront and assist with the Syrian refugee crisis. To date, Armenia has absorbed close to 20,000 refugees, the majority of which are the most vulnerable communities: Armenians, Assyrians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities. In addition to Armenian government efforts, Nalbandian has raised the cause of the Syrian peoples’ plight to the international community on several occasions this year alone. Koushakjian informed Nalbandian that Florida Armenians would do everything they can to inform the American public that Armenia is the last Christian safe haven in the Middle East.

In the afternoon, the Florida Armenians attended a luncheon on Capitol Hill hosted by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) and the Congressional Caucus on Armenian Issues in honor of President Sargsyan. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) gave remarks and introduced President Sargsyan. “For years, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation has been a leading voice promoting awareness of the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history, and the Foundation has called upon all of us to have the courage to stand against such despicable brutality in the future,” stated Chairman Royce. “As the leader of a people who survived the first genocide of the twentieth century, President Sargsyan is well aware of the need for that courage. We must continue to speak the truth about the Armenian Genocide and learn its bitter lessons in order to help others who are targeted,” Royce said.

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Taniel Koushakjian and Serzh Sargsyan on Capitol Hill

The luncheon featured remarks by special guest Robert M. Morgenthau, grandson of U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau, who received an award from IRWF Chairman Eduardo Eurnekian and co-founder Baruch Tanembaum for his efforts advancing Armenian Genocide recognition.

On Thursday, October 1, President Sargsyan concluded his visit to Washington with a presentation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Jets’ Bogosian Embraces Heritage

By Wayne Fish, Columnist
New York Hockey Journal

To be the best, you might as well learn from the best.

Winnipeg Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian subscribes to that theory, because one of his first coaches was one of the best to ever play the back line.

That would be Ray Bourque, the two-decade Hall of Famer who’s usually mentioned in the same sentence with the legendary Bobby Orr at Boston’s hockey watering holes.

Bogosian, a native of Massena, N.Y., hard by the St. Lawrence River, attended Cushing Academy in Massachusetts starting at the age of 14. Bourque’s sons, Chris and Ryan, also attended Cushing, so Ray came on board as an assistant coach.

He knew early on he had stumbled on to something really good.

Winnipeg's Zach Bogosian, 22, is the first player of Armenian heritage to play in the NHL. (Getty Images)

Winnipeg’s Zach Bogosian, 22, is the first player of Armenian heritage to play in the NHL. (Getty Images)

“Any time you’re around a Hall of Famer like that, he’s a real special person, on and off the ice,’’ Bogosian said after a Jets-Flyers game last month. He’d net his first goal of the season the next day in New Jersey. “He brought joy to the practices, always smiling — he would give us little tips, like coming into the zone late, getting point shots through. … He didn’t try to put too much on 10th-graders, but just his presence was the biggest thing.’’

Aside from his notoriety as one of Winnipeg’s prized home-grown products (drafted third in 2008 behind only Steven Stamkos and Drew Doughty), the 22-year-old Bogosian is perhaps best known for being the first player of Armenian heritage to play in the National Hockey League.

Although Armenia is a mountainous country (a former republic in the defunct Soviet Union) and endures long, cold winters, the sport of hockey has been slow to develop there. It took an American-born player like Bogosian to break the barrier, so to speak.

Zach’s great-grandfather, Stephen, escaped Armenia in the early 1920s to get away from the genocide perpetrated on his countrymen. Some 1 million Armenians reportedly lost their lives during this holocaust.

The Bogosian family wound up in upstate New York, and Zach, a natural athlete at a young age, had a decision to make early on. He could follow his dad into American football (Ike was co-captain of the 1980-81 Syracuse University teams that featured future New York Giants running back and Super Bowl champ Joe Morris) or pursue a career in hockey.

Hockey won and Zach never looked back. And he’s proud of the fact that he’s a bit of a pioneer.

“Yeah, growing up with an Armenian heritage … you know, my grandparents are still pretty hardcore about it,’’ he said. “My great-grandfather came across when the genocide started.

“It’s just a hard-working family from a small town. I mean, if I can do it, anyone can do it. As far as being the first Armenian, obviously I’m very proud of it. But it’s not just on me; it’s on my parents and everyone who helped me throughout my whole career.

“It’s kind of fun to have that (first Armenian) next to your name.’’

As for not following his dad and older brother (Aaron, now playing for the Florida Everblades of the ECHL) into American collegiate sports, the Bogosians have cable TV to thank for that.

Zach grew up watching the Ottawa 67s junior team and that convinced him to eventually play youth hockey north of the border, joining the Peterborough Petes after graduating from Cushing Academy.

Massena is a town of about 12,000 in St. Lawrence County, which also includes former NHLer Mike Hurlbut (N.Y. Rangers, Quebec Nordiques, Buffalo Sabres) among its native sons.

“I played a few tournaments with Nick Palmieri (Utica, N.Y.) for the Syracuse Stars, but Massena is pretty secluded,’’ said Bogosian. “I was never really around anyone (of high hockey caliber) growing up. When I go home, it’s just me and my brother skating together.

“It’s a unique little town; I enjoy going back there in the summertime. I’m just proud to be from there.’’

Like a number of players in the organization, there were some mixed feelings about leaving Atlanta for Winnipeg a couple years ago. On one hand, the Thrashers were moving to a more hockey-crazed environment. On the other, a lot of local ties to Atlanta — from friends to schools to favorite restaurants — had to be broken.

“I’m from upstate New York, so the climate is not too much different,’’ said Bogosian. “(Winnipeg) is a great hockey town and we have great support. Obviously, it’s never easy moving from city to city. But the city welcomed us with open arms. It’s been a great experience so far.’’

The Jets believe they’re on the right track toward contention, with young stars like Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane and, of course, Bogosian, forming a strong nucleus. The team stood 8-9-1 in late February.

“We’ve been together for a few years,’’ he said. “We’ve been through the Atlanta phase and now we’re going through the Winnipeg phase.

“Our core group might seem young, but we have a good mix of veteran guys, too. Any time you’re one of the young guys on a young team, it’s always fun, bringing that energy to the room and learning from the older guys.’’

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal and is reprinted with the permission of the author.