NEW YORK — The judge overseeing the prosecution of two Turkish businessmen charged with evading economic sanctions against Iran said Tuesday that Turkey’s government can provide evidence to help the men instead of lobbing criticisms.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman spoke in court a day after Turkey’s deputy prime minister said gold trader Reza Zarrab was a “hostage” being forced to testify against Turkey’s government.
Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman, has stopped appearing in court, prompting speculation he is cooperating with the U.S. and may testify against his co-defendant, an executive with the state-owned Halkbank. Lawyers have refused to discuss Zarrab, though he apparently was the subject of a sealed court hearing on Monday when the trial was postponed until next week.
Berman commented shortly before acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said at a news conference that claims the prosecution is driven by Turkish politics “are ridiculous on their face.”
“Frankly, it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how our justice system works,” he said. “The defendants are charged with serious crimes. … That’s why the case is being brought and that’s the only reason. Beyond that, I’ll let the evidence speak for itself.”
When he spoke at a final pretrial hearing in the Iran sanctions case, Berman noted that some comments he had read about were critical of the prosecution.
But he said he had a suggestion for Turkish officials who want to help Zarrab and co-defendant Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy CEO of Halkbank.
“The best way for them to be helpful is to help defense counsel by providing in court any evidence or witnesses they are aware of that could assist the defense,” Berman said.
He said officials in Turkey could also encourage any employees of Halkbank, which is majority owned by the government of Turkey, who have relevant evidence to turn it over.
His statement that officials could still provide evidence to help Zarrab was an acknowledgement that the citizen of Turkey and Iran remained part of the case even though his attorneys have not participated in the public submission of pretrial documents and has not appeared in court in weeks. The Federal Bureau of Prisons website listed him as released from the prison system earlier this month, but a government spokesman said he remains in custody, though he wouldn’t say where or how.
Cathy Fleming, an attorney for Atilla, told Berman at a pretrial hearing Tuesday that secrecy rules were limiting the ability of the defense to prepare for trial.
She said the lawyers were not allowed to share the name of one trial witness even with their client.
“Frankly, if we even suggest the name to anybody, it’s going to end up in the press,” Fleming said.
Associated Press writer Tom Hays contributed to this report.