U.S. judge insists oil-for-gold trial must start Nov. 27 as scheduled

AHVAL, NEW YORK - The U.S. trial of an Iranian–Turkish gold trader and a Turkish banker accused of subverting sanctions on Iran will start as scheduled on Nov. 27, a U.S. federal judge has ruled, denying a defence request for more time to prepare for a case that has strained relations between Turkey and the United States.

Gold dealer Reza Zarrab, a dual Iranian and Turkish citizen, was arrested in Miami on a family holiday to Disney World in March 2016. He is facing six charges of running a complex scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran by buying Iranian oil with gold.

Banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla was arrested on a business trip to New York a year later and is charged with two counts of laundering the proceeds through state-owned Halkbank.

Seven other people, including the Turkish former energy minister Zafer Çağlayan, are also charged with being part of the plot, but are free outside the United States. Çağlayan is accused of taking tens of millions of dollars in bribes to cover up the scheme.

Lawyers for Atilla requested U.S. District Judge Richard Berman allow more time to prepare his defence and for him to dissolve or modify a protective order on some of the evidence.

"We will pick a jury on the 24th and resume on schedule," Berman told the court on Monday. The trial had been set to begin on Oct. 30, but was put back to Nov. 27 after a previous request from Atilla's lawyers. Visibly annoyed, Berman told the court: "Mr. Atilla is entitled to a speedy trial." 

Lawyers for Zarrab were absent from the hearing, adding to speculation that he may have a struck a plea deal with the prosecution to reduce his possible 75-year sentence in return for giving evidence against all those involved in the alleged plot. Court papers filed last week on behalf of Atilla said Zarrab had “essentially not participated in the case" since Sept. 6th.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the prosecution a plot to undermine Turkey and has raised the case in a conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Atilla's attorneys, Cathy Fleming and Victor Rocco, told the court the parties had signed a protective order at the beginning of the case on the understanding that the terms would be modified as the case proceeded. The lawyers argued that the protective order was impeding its ability to defend Atilla effectively.

Listing the obstacles the protective order created, Atilla's lawyers said some potential Turkish witnesses, concerned about submitting their personal information to a U.S. court, had declined to sign the form. The prosecution said in response it was worried about the safety of its own witnesses, protecting the evidence and national security concerns.

Berman decided not to remove the protective order, questioning the diligence of the defence attorneys in taking depositions from Turkish witnesses. The defence lawyers said they had visited Turkey twice to take depositions.

After a short discussion, the two sides told the court they would meet again this week to iron out the details of possibly cross-examining witnesses via video-conference.