Jury selection began Monday at a criminal trial where the fate of the lone defendant has been overshadowed by the mystery over the whereabouts of his onetime co-defendant, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader whose arrest caused a diplomatic stir.
The trader, Reza Zarrab, had once been expected to go before a U.S. jury with Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla in federal court in Manhattan. But Zarrab stopped appearing at pretrial hearings several weeks ago, and his name was removed from a roster of jail inmates, prompting speculation he is cooperating with the U.S. and may testify against Atilla.
Zarrab, 33, was a no-show again on Monday, with U.S. District Judge Richard Berman telling prospective jurors that Atilla is “the only defendant in this trial.”
The names of Zarrab and his wife, did appear on a newly filed list of people whose names could come up in the case. But it remained unclear if he’ll have any role in a prosecution accusing him of bribing Turkish bank and customs officials with millions of dollars.
Lawyers for Zarrab haven’t commented. Prosecutors said he’s still in U.S. custody, but they wouldn’t comment further.
Attilla, a former deputy CEO for state-run Halkbank, has pleaded not guilty to charges alleging he conspired to process hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of financial transactions for Iranian businesses or Iran’s government through U.S. banks. Authorities say those transactions are banned by U.S. and international sanctions.
The government in Turkey, where Zarrab is well-known, has depicted the trial as a conspiracy. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag described him as a “hostage” being forced to testify against Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release him.