Attorneys for Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian citizen who is charged with violating US sanctions against Iran, argued on Wednesday that the charges should be dismissed on the grounds that prosecutors overreached in charging a foreign citizen engaged in business abroad that is not illegal under foreign law.
The case is being heard by Judge Richard Berman, senior federal judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, whose recusal Zarrab’s defense team had earlier sought, citing reports that the judge had attended a seminar in Turkey in 2014 allegedly organized by a law office linked to the Gülen movement, inspired by US-based Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish government accuses of masterminding a corruption probe in December 2013 and a coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Judge Berman announced on Sept. 30 that he rejected the demand for his recusal after lawyers for Zarrab filed the motion, a week before Berman was set to hear arguments over whether to dismiss the indictment against Zarrab.
The high-profile case of Zarrab, who was brought to the courtroom in Manhattan in a blue jail uniform on Wednesday through a tunnel to the Manhattan court from a New York prison, is being closely watched in Turkey after Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, whom prosecutors say had “close ties” to Zarrab, said he believes US authorities had “ulterior motives” in pursuing the case.
Zarrab was arrested in March in Miami as part of an investigation overseen by US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara on charges of violating US sanctions against Iran.
Zarrab was arrested in Turkey in 2013 for bribing Turkish officials in an investigation implicating members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and people close to then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was released after the charges were dropped. The Turkish prosecutor and the police officers responsible for the investigation were either suspended or arrested after the AKP government claimed that the corruption investigation was an attempt by Gülen sympathizers in the state bureaucracy to overthrow the government.
During a recent speech in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, President Erdoğan went into a tirade against US federal attorneys and the court over the prosecution of Zarrab and accused the prosecutors of taking aim at him through Zarrab’s case. Erdoğan said that Zarrab is a Turkish citizen and innocent.
According to the pro-government media, Erdoğan also accused both Berman and Bharara of being wined and dined in Turkey.
Bharara responded to the claims by saying he had never set foot in Turkey.
As the trial proper is expected to start in January 2017, Bharara did not attend the hearing on Wednesday but was represented by two of his assistants.
When Zarrab’s defense team argued that Bharara’s office had overreached when they charged Zarrab with engaging in business abroad that is not illegal under foreign law, Assistant US Attorney Michael Lockard said: “The statute in a very clear and unambiguous way describes the scope of what it does. Foreign nationals who violate [the statute] can be criminally charged.”