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Erdogan Says U.S. Trying To 'Blackmail' Turkey With Iran Sanctions Case

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the New York trial of a Turkish banker accused of conspiring to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions "blackmail" and a "blemish" on his country.

His comments in Ankara on December 5 came as the trial of Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla continued with a fifth day of testimony by the U.S. government's star witness and alleged mastermind of the scheme to evade sanctions.

Erdogan said the trial is a ploy to distract Turkey while Washington makes plans to strengthen Kurdish groups in Syria that Turkey considers to be "terrorists" allied with armed separatists in Turkey.

"Turkey has no plans against the United States, but it is clear that the U.S. has plans against us," Erdogan said. The Iran sanctions "case has nothing to do with law, justice or trade, it's an acrobatic spectacle," he said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim has called Turkish accusations that his prosecution is politically motivated "ridiculous."

The government's star witness, wealthy Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, conceded in testimony on December 5 that he has a proclivity to pay bribes to get what he wants, under cross-examination from Atilla's defense attorney Cathy Fleming.

But Zarrab said he never paid Atilla a bribe and that Atilla never asked him for money.

According Zarrab's agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to some charges in exchange for leniency, Zarrab paid bribes to foreign officials and corporate representatives between 2002 and March 2016 in return for personal benefits, favorable business dealings, and the protection of government officials.

Zarrab estimated that he made from $100 million to $150 million between 2010 and 2016 by carrying out various illegal schemes, including helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions.

As part of the plea deal, Zarrab has agreed to give up any illicit profits. He testified that he might be permitted to be released on bail once the trial is finished.

Zarrab's testimony likely will win him leniency against charges that otherwise could carry a prison term of up to 130 years.

Turkish authorities have detained 17 people linked to Zarrab in an investigation launched after he cooperated with U.S. authorities and agreed to testify in the case.

Some of those detained in Turkey are accused of sending documents to the United States to help with the case.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters