RFL/RE – Turkey has sent a diplomatic note to U.S. authorities inquiring about Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who is awaiting trial in the United States this month on charges of evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry says.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons website last week listed Zarrab, 34, as having been released from prison on November 8, but U.S. prosecutors said that posting was in error and he remained in jail.
“Our Washington Embassy has officially requested information from U.S. authorities, and has not yet received an answer,” the ministry said on November 15. “We will follow up the issue.”
Turkish leaders have pressed repeatedly for the release of Zarrab, who has close ties to the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan and other Turkish leaders have raised the issue directly with the White House.
Media reports last week said U.S. special prosecutor Robert Mueller is investigating whether Turkish officials discussed paying former national security adviser Michael Flynn $15 million to secure the release of Zarrab as well as the deportation of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric residing in the United States who Erdogan has accused to engineering a failed coup against him last year.
Zarrab, who was taken into custody by U.S. authorities in March 2016, this year hired former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a political ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, to negotiate with U.S. authorities to try to obtain his release through political and diplomatic channels.
The absence of Zarrab and his attorneys at a recent pretrial conference at which he was called a “stealth” defendant set off speculation that a deal for his release was imminent.
But a spokesman for acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim in Manhattan put down that speculation, saying on November 14 that Zarrab remained in U.S. custody.
“The information that Zarrab was released is not factual,” Zarrab’s lawyer Seyda Yildirim told Turkey’s Hurriyet newspaper on November 15.
“He might have been moved to a different section. We haven’t been informed in five days,” Yildirim said.
Hurriyet quoted a diplomatic source as saying Turkey in its formal diplomatic note asked U.S. authorities to make clear in which prison Zarrab is being held and give assurances over his health and security.
Zarrab has pleaded not guilty to the Iran sanctions evasion charges against him and a co-defendant, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive at the Turkish lender Halkbank. Their trial is due start in New York on November 27.
Erdogan has accused U.S. prosecutors of having “ulterior motives” in the case by including references to him and his wife in court papers.
Zarrab, a wealthy gold trader who is married to a well-known Turkish pop singer, was linked to a corruption scandal that swirled around Erdogan and his deputies when he was Turkish prime minister in 2013.
Zarrab spent 70 days in custody in Turkey at the time, but all suspects arrested in the judicial probe were subsequently released. Erdogan at the time denounced the allegations as a plot by Gulen to bring down his government.