Jury members for a high-profile trial relating to Turkey's evasion of U.S. sanctions on Iran will not be named in court, a federal judge suggested Tuesday.
Judge Richard Berman took the unusual step of suggesting concealing jurors' identities after noting that individuals involved in the case have been contacted by "third parties” seeking to interfere with the trial of accused Turkish sanctions violators.
"I guess it's hearsay for sure, but I've heard of people involved in this case being approached inappropriately by third parties. And that even includes court interpreters," Berman said, implying that the individuals represented Turkish government interests. He added that he will refer such behavior "to the appropriate authorities" if it continues.
At issue is a case whose tentacles reach to the very highest levels of the U.S. and Turkish presidential administrations. Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader, is accused of orchestrating a scheme that would allow Turkey to buy Iranian gas in violation of U.S. sanctions. Prosecutors say Zarrab co-defendant, Mehmet Atilla, worked at a Turkish state-owned bank and helped conceal those plans. They are charged with conspiracy to commit bank fraud and violating U.S. sanctions.
Before the trial was set to begin next week, the case took an unusual turn. Zarrab’s attorneys have stopped public filings in the case, and Atilla’s lawyers have indicated they believe Zarrab is no longer a defendant. As The Daily Beast reported last week, there are some indications that Zarrab is potentially cooperating with another criminal investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who allegedly discussed a $15 million plot to free Zarrab and kidnap an exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, for the Turkish government.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is concerned because the Zarrab trial arises from the same actions as a government corruption scandal in 2013. Top-level ministers were implicated for taking bribes in the corruption probe, and an audio tape surfaced allegedly showing Erdogan telling one of his sons to hide money.
The revelations about attempted interference in the Zarrab trial come amid a concerted media blitz by Turkish state-controlled media to taint the public image of the case. Media reports by state-owned publications say the U.S. prosecution is orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, the cleric living in exile who was a one-time Erdogan ally, and has now become a popular Turkish scapegoat.
Turkish media has accused Judge Berman and Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York where Zarrab is indicted, of being linked to Gulen. They’ve claimed the U.S. criminal case is simply a duplicate of the 2013 charges, which the Turkish government says were fabricated by Gulenist sympathizers to bring down Erdogan.
Most recently, Turkish prosecutors have launched an investigation in Bharara and his successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, and demanded to know how they acquired evidence to be used in the prosecution. They have also implied that Zarrab is being denied access to legal counsel.
"I am aware that there is a lot of press coverage of this case and a lot comment on the media," Berman, the judge, said Tuesday. "I certainly believe, as I'm sure you do, in free speech."
Instead of playing "armchair quarterback" through the media, Berman suggested that Turkish authorities concerned about the case against Atilla cooperate with his defense team and make witnesses available for questioning.
Defense lawyers, however, initially objected to Berman’s suggestion for anonymizing the jury, saying the unusual step would be “highly prejudicial” and imply that Atilla was a threat to their safety.
“There have been no written threats, as far as I’m aware, especially from Mr. Atilla,” said Victor Rocco, a defense attorney.
"Safety wasn't even on my radar," Berman countered. "I'm concerned with the integrity of these proceedings."