Suspicion grows that Iranian-Turkish gold trader has been flipped in US sanctions case

By bne IntelliNews November 17, 2017

The US judge appointed for the upcoming trial of an Iranian-Turkish gold trader accused of evading American sanctions against Iran on November 16 refused to state whether the businessman will actually go on trial with one of his co-defendants.

Bloomberg reported that two people familiar with the case said the trader, wealthy businessman Reza Zarrab—who is said by some analysts to have been close to the family of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—remains in US custody but not in a federal jail. That occasionally happens when a defendant has agreed to turn government witness. Prosecutors and Zarrab’s lawyers have declined to comment on the matter to news agencies.

The prosecution of Zarrab was very likely on the agenda when on November 9 Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and US Vice President Mike Pence met for a clear the air meeting over several disagreements between Ankara and Washington, DC. To date, no big developments have occurred as a result of that tête-à-tête.

Zarrab, and alleged co-conspirators, have been charged with handling hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015, in a plot to evade US sanctions. Although nine people have been charged, only Zarrab and Turkish state-run Halkbank banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla are in US custody. Both have denied the charges.

When asked by one of Atilla’s lawyers, Victor Rocco, if Zarrab would be on trial in New York alongside his client, US District Judge Richard Berman smiled and responded: “The one perk that comes with being a judge is you don’t have to answer questions as witnesses and lawyers do.” He then told Rocco that he should keep an eye on the court docket.

US prosecutors have alleged that Zarrab sought support from and invoked the name of Erdogan to advance his business interests. Erdogan has not been accused of any wrongdoing but has reacted by saying US prosecutors of have “ulterior motives” in making references to him and his wife in court papers. The Turkish president, who has repeatedly asked the US to drop the case in the past two years, has claimed that the prosecution is being driven by people who want to undermine the Turkish economy.

The case has certainly undermined Halkbank. Its market capitalisation is a third of what it was prior to Zarrab’s first arrest as part of the affair, and Bloomberg’s records show the bank has not sold an international bond or received a syndicated loan from abroad in more than a year.

Zarrab, 34, is said to have lived a luxurious life with his Turkish pop star wife in Turkey, replete with a private plane, a yacht, and waterside mansion in Istanbul. Allegedly he deployed his companies to move hundreds of millions of dollars in Iranian oil revenue through the US financial system to help Tehran dodge sanctions imposed against Iran in response to its nuclear development programme. Halkbank was allegedly used for fraudulent transactions disguised as related to food shipments and other permissible commerce, prosecutors say.

US authorities grabbed Zarrab last year when he was en route to a family vacation at Disney World.

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