NEW YORK — A judge postponed jury selection in the trial surrounding a conspiracy to help Iran evade economic sanctions after the star defendant, an international gold trader who had been trying to broker a diplomatic solution to the case, was a no-show Monday.
The case against Reza Zarrab, a citizen of Turkey and Iran, has strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. On Monday, the government there depicted the trial as a conspiracy, with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag describing Zarrab as a “hostage” being forced to testify against Turkey.
But Zarrab wasn’t in court early Monday and had not participated in pretrial activities for weeks. Zarrab’s criminal lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, declined to comment this month on anything related to his client.
Lawyers for deputy CEO of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, were in Manhattan federal court Monday for the start of jury selection. But U.S. District Judge Richard Berman held a locked-door session with lawyers for more than an hour before calling reporters inside to say the case was postponed for a week. He didn’t say why, and lawyers didn’t explain the delay outside court.
“The delay is the delay is the delay. I can’t say more,” said Victor Rocco, a lawyer for Atilla, after he emerged from court.
He added: “I can’t comment guys. It’s a sealed proceeding.”
Prosecutors left court without speaking to reporters. Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for prosecutors, declined comment.
Afterward, Berman issued a one-page order, confirming that a conference in the case scheduled for Tuesday would still occur and noting that opening statements and witness testimony will occur as soon as a jury is picked beginning next Monday.
Earlier this year, Zarrab hired former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to try and broker a diplomatic solution to the case. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release him.
Adding to the mystery, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons began reporting on its website that Zarrab had been released from custody on Nov. 8.
Prosecutors said he was still “in federal custody,” but wouldn’t say where. Judge Berman declined to answer questions about his status.
The prosecution was little noticed by Americans when it began, but was a major development in Turkey.
Zarrab, who is married to Turkish pop star and TV personality Ebru Gundes, had initially been arrested in that country in 2013 as part of a sweeping corruption investigation involving the state bank, Halkbank, and several top Erdogan lieutenants.
But prosecutors and police involved in the corruption accusations were removed from duty and the charges were later dropped.
Since then, Erdogan’s administration has tightened control over the country, arresting at least 50,000 people following 2016 coup attempt he said was orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania. Several Americans have also been arrested in that crackdown.
Erdogan has demanded that Gulen be handed over to Turkey, perhaps in exchange for detained Americans.
Erdogan has also demanded that Zarrab be freed.