NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Wednesday heard arguments on whether U.S. charges against a Turkish gold trader for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran should be dismissed, in a high-profile case that could determine the scope of the U.S. sanctions regime.
U.S. prosecutors accuse Reza Zarrab, a 33-year-old Turkish and Iranian citizen, of using a network of companies in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to facilitate hundreds of millions of dollars of financial transactions on behalf of Iranian companies and individuals in violation of U.S. sanctions.
But Zarrab’s defence team, made up of some of the country’s best-known lawyers, asked U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan to drop the case, arguing U.S. prosecutors overreached when they charged a foreign citizen engaging in business abroad that is not illegal under foreign law.
The prosecution was “unprecedented and expansive” and if successful, would constitute a “radical expansion” of the statute governing sanctions, said Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general and one of Zarrab’s attorneys
The government countered that it has jurisdiction because Zarrab’s transactions moved through U.S. banks and the law governing sanctions is not just limited to U.S. citizens but also applies to property that moves through the country.
“The statute in a very clear and unambiguous way describes the scope of what it does,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard said in court. “Foreign nationals who violate (the statue) can be criminally charged,” Lockard said.
Zarrab, who entered the courtroom wearing a blue prison uniform and listened to the proceedings through a Turkish interpreter, was arrested in Florida in March after he came to the country planning to take a family vacation at Disney World.
Another of Zarrab’s attorneys, Benjamin Brafman, asked the judge to remove evidence gathered during that arrest from the proceedings since it was taken before he had access to a lawyer. The government said it should be admitted.
The case is being closely watching in Turkey after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whom prosecutors say had “close ties” to Zarrab, said he believes U.S. authorities had “ulterior motives” in pursuing it.
Zarrab’s lawyers first sought to have Berman removed from the case, claiming the judge had made remarks at a 2014 symposium in Istanbul about an earlier Turkish probe of their client that was ultimately dropped. The judge denied the request and said he would preside over the case without bias.
The case is USA v. Zarrab in U.S. District Court Southern District of New York, No. 1:15-cr-00867
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Steve Orlofsky