June 30, 2020 / 3:00 PM / 12 days ago

Turkey's Halkbank to seek removal of U.S. judge in Iran sanctions case

NEW YORK, June 30 (Reuters) - Halkbank will ask the U.S. judge overseeing a criminal case accusing it of helping Iran evade American sanctions to recuse himself, a lawyer for the Turkish bank said on Tuesday.

The lawyer, Robert Cary, notified U.S. District Judge Richard Berman of Halkbank’s intention at a hearing, without providing a reason. Berman set a July 14 deadline for a formal request.

Halkbank and Cary did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Halkbank and bank executives of using money servicers and front companies in Iran, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates to evade sanctions.

They said improper transactions included letting revenue from oil and gas sales be spent on gold, and facilitating sham food and medicine purchases.

Halkbank pleaded not guilty on March 31 to bank fraud, money laundering and four conspiracy charges.

Berman has overseen several related cases, including the January 2018 conviction of former Halkbank executive Mehmet Hakan Atilla and charges against Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader.

Zarrab testified against Atilla after pleading guilty. He also sought Berman’s recusal before entering that plea.

The Halkbank case gained renewed attention in June when John Bolton, a former national security adviser for President Donald Trump, discussed it in a new memoir.

Bolton said Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan gave Trump a memo saying Halkbank was innocent, and that Trump told Erdogan in 2018 he would intervene and the problem would be “fixed” once prosecutors were replaced.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan was fired on June 20.

Turkey said last Wednesday that Bolton’s book contained misleading presentations of Erdogan’s conversations with Trump.

No trial date for Halkbank has been set.

Cary requested March 2022, citing the coronavirus pandemic and the “vast majority” of witnesses being overseas.

U.S. prosecutor Michael Lockard proposed February 2021. “This is not a case where we are starting from scratch,” he said, citing the Atilla case.

The case is U.S. v. Halkbank, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 15-cr-00867. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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