Halkbank seeks to challenge U.S. jurisdiction before entering plea to charges

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By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank (IS:), which U.S. prosecutors have criminally charged with helping Iran evade sanctions, said it should be able to challenge whether U.S. courts can hear the case at all before it entered a formal plea, according to a court filing made public on Wednesday.

The bank also rejected prosecutors’ claim that it was a “fugitive” for refusing to appear in federal court in Manhattan to enter a plea, and said that appearing there might be construed as accepting the court’s jurisdiction.

“As a corporation, Halkbank cannot be a ‘fugitive’ since it has no physical body to present,” the bank said.

Halkbank also said it will ask U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who has overseen related litigation, to remove himself from the case.

A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan, who is not related to the judge, declined to comment.

The U.S. Department of Justice brought the criminal case on Oct. 16, in what the bank called an escalation of Washington’s sanctions on Ankara for Turkey’s military incursion in Syria. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called the case an “unlawful, ugly” step.

It is unclear why Halkbank is seeking the judge’s recusal.

Judge Berman previously presided over a criminal case against Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and Halkbank director Mehmet Hakan Atilla. Zarrab had moved for Berman’s recusal on the grounds that he criticized Turkey’s government while attending a 2014 symposium in Istanbul.

Zarrab pleaded guilty before testifying against Atilla, who was convicted and sentenced to 32 months in prison.

Atilla returned to Turkey this year after leaving prison, and was named general manager of the Istanbul stock exchange. U.S. prosecutors have said that Zarrab, Atilla, Halkbank and other Turkish officials schemed between 2012 and 2016 to help Iran spend revenue from oil and gas sales abroad using sham food and gold transactions, in violation of U.S. sanctions. Erdogan condemned the case at the time as a political attack on his government.

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