With voir dire in the trial against a Turkish businessman accused of circumventing U.S. sanctions on Iran set to begin next week in Manhattan, and with rhetoric from Turkish officials intensifying, the judge in the case said officials would be more helpful to the defense team to produce witnesses than to attack prosecutors through the press.
“Officials are free to comment,” said U.S. District Judge Richard Berman of the Southern District of New York on Tuesday during a pretrial conference for Mehmet Atilla, whose charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, with regard to recent public statements by Turkish officials.
“We have an expression: ‘armchair quarterback,’” Berman continued. “If one thinks they could improve on Tom Brady’s performance they are free to do it.”
Atilla, 47, an executive from a Turkish state-owned bank, had been set to stand trial alongside Reza Zarrab, 34, a gold trader with ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who at one point in the case brought former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey onto his legal team to discuss a possible diplomatic resolution to the case.
But now Zarrab is now reportedly working with prosecutors and, according to the website for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, was released from prison on Nov. 8.
Jury selection for the trial had been set to begin on Monday, but it was announced after a two-hour, closed-door meeting between Berman and lawyers in the case that it would be delayed for a week.
Zarrab was first arrested in March 2016 while he was at Disney World on vacation with his family. Several news outlets have reported that he is still in U.S. custody.
Victor Rocco, a Herrick Feinstein partner and a member of Atilla’s defense team, has said that Zarrab has not taken part in preparing for the trial, referring to him in an earlier proceeding as a “stealth defendant.”
Neither Benjamin Brafman of Brafman & Associates nor the press office for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York would comment on questions about Zarrab’s status.
Atilla is also charged with conspiracy to defraud the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, bank fraud, money laundering and associated conspiracy charges.
In addition to Rocco, Atilla’s defense team includes Cathy Fleming and Robert Fettweis of Fleming.Ruvoldt. Atilla’s employer, Halkbank, is also paying for counsel by McDermott Will & Emery.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Lockard, Sidhardha Kamaraju and David Denton Jr.; and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Dean Sovolos are prosecuting the case.
Atilla’s trial begins as rhetoric between U.S and Turkish officials has ratcheted up in recent weeks.
A representative of the Turkish government said on Monday the case against Zarrab and Atilla amounted to a “clear plot against Turkey” and that U.S. prosecutors were trying to undermine economic relations between Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Turkish officials have also said that the prosecutors in the case have ties to Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric who orchestrated a failed coup against Erdogan’s government last year. Over the weekend, Turkish prosecutors said they would launch an investigation into Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who President Donald Trump fired in March, and Bharara’s successor, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim.
Kim addressed the officials’ comments at a news conference on Tuesday regarding an unrelated arrest, saying claims that the prosecution of the case is driven by domestic issues in Turkey, and that it is driven by followers of Gulen are “ridiculous on their face. ”
“Anyone who knows our office and our department and understands our justice system would recognize those ridiculous claims,” Kim said, according to a Facebook Live broadcast of the news conference. “Frankly, it display a lack of understand of how are our justice system works and, frankly, how the rule of law works.”
NBC News broke the story earlier this month that, as part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, investigators are looking into whether former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn met with Turkish officials prior to the Trump inauguration and, among other things, discussed returning Zarrab to Turkey.