Judge Richard M. Berman, senior federal judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, who is the overseeing cases of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab and Turkish Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla, both jailed in the US for evading US sanctions against Iran, has said he is worried and disturbed by political pressure being exerted in the case.
According to a Voice of America (VOA) Turkish service report on Thursday, Berman raised concerns about political interference in the case after he denied bail for Atilla on Tuesday.
During remarks following the decision, Berman said Turkish and US politicians were attempting to find ways to have Zarrab and Atilla extradited to Turkey without trial.
When Berman said there were political attempts to extradite the two to Turkey, Atilla’s lawyer Cathy Fleming said that they have never been involved in such an attempt and never talked to the Turkish government about Atilla’s extradition to Turkey.
On Tuesday, Berman ruled for the continuation of Atilla’s arrest in accordance with the objection by the prosecution to the request made by Atilla’s lawyers.
In early August Atilla’s legal team submitted a petition to the court for bail and demanded that his case be separated from that of Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was arrested in Miami in March 2016 on similar charges, saying Atilla is not accused of the crimes that Zarrab is accused of, including money laundering, violating US sanctions on Iran, violating US financial laws and swindling US banks.
Judge Berman will decide on Sept. 7 on Atilla’s petition to be separated from Zarrab’s case.
Atilla is accused of conspiring with Zarrab to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal transactions through US banks on behalf of Iran’s government and other entities in that country.
After attending the UN General Assembly in New York City last September, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went into a tirade against US federal attorneys and courts over the prosecution of a Turkish-Iranian businessman who was a key figure in a sweeping corruption scandal that broke in late December 2013, targeting Erdoğan’s inner circle and family members.
Speaking to some pro-government journalists on his way back to Turkey from New York, Erdoğan said that according to investigations by the Turkish finance and justice ministries, Zarrab is innocent. “Even Iran agrees on that [he is innocent]. But, despite everything, he is jailed in the US,” he said.
US authorities arrested Zarrab in Miami in March on charges of helping Iran process millions of dollars of transactions when it faced US sanctions for its nuclear program. The prosecution of Zarrab in New York produced a new front of dispute between the two countries as Turkish authorities expressed concern over the case.
The businessman is currently in custody in New York and denies the US charges leveled against him.
What disturbed Erdoğan and other Turkish officials is that the then-US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara’s office cited a 2013 corruption investigation into Erdoğan and other Cabinet members in the Zarrab indictment in New York.
When the graft probe was launched, Erdoğan’s government retaliated by purging the police chiefs and prosecutors who initiated the corruption investigation and introduced new legislation that restructured the judicial system to establish more political control over it.
With all prosecutors either reassigned to other posts or dismissed, and some even later arrested, the probe was dropped and Zarrab was acquitted of charges thanks to government intervention in the legal proceedings.
Berman said at a hearing in May that he has some doubt as to whether former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani can work for the defendant while his law firm represents Turkey in other matters.
Berman requested additional information from prosecutors and a defense attorney before he decides if Zarrab can keep his attorneys despite potential conflicts of interest.
“I need to know who is looking out for Mr. Zarrab at any negotiation Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Mukasey might be engaged in,” the AP quoted Berman as saying. “It’s of concern to me,”
Zarrab had added Giuliani and former US Attorney General Michael Mukasey to his legal team in order to secure a diplomatic solution to the case, in pursuit of which the two lawyers had met secretly with Turkish President in Ankara. They also intend to speak to US officials in an attempt to resolve the case out of court.
Affidavits filed by Giuliani and Mukasey in April to explain their roles in the case mischaracterized the alleged crimes as not serious or harmful to the United States because none of the transactions involved weapons, nuclear technology or other contraband, according to the US assistant district attorney, who rebutted that “the entities that benefitted from this alleged scheme include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and agents or affiliates of that entity, Iranian banks that have been sanctioned for their role in providing financing for Iran’s nuclear programs, and Iranian commercial airlines.”