Turkish businessman pleads not guilty to U.S. charges over Iran sanctions

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A Turkish gold trader pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to charges that he and others conspired to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars in financial transactions to help the Iranian government or other entities evade U.S. sanctions.

Reza Zarrab, a dual citizen of Turkey and his native Iran, entered the plea at a hearing before Judge Richard Berman in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. He was arrested last month in Miami.

“We are pleased that Mr. Zarrab has finally arrived in New York so we can begin the process of defending this case,” Zarrab’s attorney, Benjamin Brafman, told reporters outside the court room. “We believe the charges are very defensible.”

Brafman said he expected to offer a “significant bail package” within 10 days.

Zarrab, 33, was charged in an indictment last month along with one of his employees, Kamelia Jamshidy, and Hossein Najafzadeh, a senior officer at a unit of Bank Mellat in Iran. The other two defendants, both Iranian, remain at large.

The indictment charges Zarrab, Jamshidy, 29, and Najafzadeh, 65, with engaging in conspiracies to defraud the United States, to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, to commit bank fraud and to commit money laundering.

Prosecutors said that from 2010 to 2015, the trio helped Iranian individuals and entities, including Bank Mellat, one of the largest banks in Iran, evade U.S. sanctions by conducting financial transactions through companies in Turkey and in the United Arab Emirates owned and operated by Zarrab.

Zarrab’s arrest came two months after world powers, led by the United States and the European Union, lifted crippling sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear ambitions.

Zarrab was previously detained by Turkish authorities for two months, beginning in 2013, as part of a high-profile corruption probe.

He was accused by Turkish prosecutors with high-ranking Turkish officials, including three then-government ministers, of involvement in Iranian money transfers via gold smuggling, documents leaked at the time showed.

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

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of Turkey’s main opposition CHP, said at the time of Zarrab’s arrest he hoped the U.S. case would shed new light on that investigation.

The case is U.S. v. Zarrab, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-cr-867.

By Reuters