World News

U.S. judge delays Iran sanctions trial against Turkish gold trader

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The diplomatically charged criminal trial of a Turkish gold trader accused of conspiring to handle hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities in violation of U.S. sanctions has been delayed by one week.

The trader, Reza Zarrab, and his lawyers did not appear in Manhattan federal court on Monday, further indication that he may have reached an agreement to cooperate with U.S. authorities and will not be tried. Zarrab has not appeared in court or submitted any filings since September.

A second defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an employee of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, was present with his lawyers.

Atilla’s lawyers said in a court filing last month that it was “likely” Atilla would be the only defendant on trial.

Jury selection was to begin on Monday, but U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ordered it to begin on Nov. 27, after a nearly two-hour court hearing that was closed to the public.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Zarrab and Atilla of conspiring to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty.

The case has strained diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United States. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag on Monday called the case a “clear plot against Turkey” that lacked any legal basis.

Turkish authorities have opened an investigation into the U.S. prosecutors behind the case, including former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan and his successor, acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported on Saturday.

When asked for comment, Bharara referred Reuters to Kim’s office. James Margolin, a spokesman for that office, declined to comment.

The probe follows allegations made Friday by Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, that the U.S. case is based on documents fabricated by followers of the cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for last year’s attempted coup against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

Cavusoglu said the U.S. case was “exactly the same” as an earlier case prepared by Turkish prosecutors, which he said was also driven by Gulen.

In that case, which became public in 2013, Turkish prosecutors accused Zarrab and high-ranking Turkish officials of facilitating Iranian money transfers via gold smuggling, leaked documents at the time showed.

Erdogan, then prime minister, cast the investigation as a coup attempt by his political enemies. Several prosecutors were removed from the case, police investigators were reassigned, and the investigation was later dropped.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe