Dictator Erdogan’s close friend Zarrab loses bid to recuse U.S. judge

Erdogan's friend Reza Zarrab breached US sanctions on Iran with the help of Erdogan's senior government ministers

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge has rejected a request to recuse himself from overseeing the case of a Turkish gold trader accused of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, calling it untimely and without merit.

Lawyers for Reza Zarrab, 33, had asked U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan to remove himself from the case, citing comments he made at a 2014 symposium in Istanbul they said regarded an earlier Turkish probe of their client.

But Berman in a ruling on Thursday disputed that account, saying he had never heard of Zarrab until his arrest on U.S. charges in March.

“And, it would be objectively unreasonable to conclude from these remarks that the Court was biased or partial against Mr. Zarrab,” Berman wrote.

Berman said the defense also previously waived his recusal, and he called the request untimely, citing the Jan. 23 trial date.

Zarrab’s lawyers declined comment.

Prosecutors accuse Iranian-born Zarrab of conspiring to engage in hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in order to evade U.S. sanctions.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whom prosecutors say had “close ties” to Zarrab, on Sunday said he believes U.S. authorities had “ulterior motives” in pursuing the case.

He also accused U.S. officials involved in the case of traveling to Turkey as guests of a religious movement Erdogan blames for a failed military coup in July led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Turkey wants the United States to extradite Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania. Gulen, once a close ally of Erdogan, has denied involvement in the abortive coup.

Zarrab’s lawyers sought Berman’s recusal based on remarks he made at the Istanbul conference after the collapse of a high-profile investigation in Turkey involving government officials and Zarrab.

In that case, Turkish prosecutors charged Zarrab in 2013, along with others, of paying cabinet-level officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.

Erdogan, who was then prime minister, cast the case as a coup attempt orchestrated by his political enemies.

Several prosecutors were removed from the case, police investigators reassigned, and the investigation was dropped.

At the conference, Berman said “the rule of law as contrasted with the rule of man is under some attack in Turkey.”

While Zarrab’s lawyers said the remarks related to the Turkish probe, Berman said he was unaware of the charges against Zarrab.