Reza Zarrab, a key, prominent defendant in Iran sanctions trial in New York City, has no longer been a suspect, but a new witness in the case, the Turkish prime minister said.
Speaking at Turkey Economy Summit in Istanbul on Wednesday, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed media reports about shifting status of Mr. Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who faces charges of evading U.S. sanctions against Iran.
“The U.S. is putting pressure on those involved in the case to testify against Turkey and threaten Turkish interests. Those who were suspects are now witnesses. This is a human rights violation,” the prime minister said.
His remarks came days after NBC News reported that Mr. Zarrab was moved from a federal jail to a federal custody. The change marks a shift in his status, fueling a strong belief that he might have been cooperating with the U.S. prosecutors.
Two U.S. federal officials who know the process confirmed cooperation, NBC News reported.
On Monday, U.S. Judge Richard M. Berman delayed jury selection for one week. While Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy CEO of Halkbank, which is majority-owned by the Turkish government, appeared at the court along with his lawyers at Monday hearing, Mr. Zarrab was absent.
He has not appeared any court hearing since September.
The Turkish prime minister said on Wednesday that cases against Turkish citizens and Mr. Zarrab in the U.S. lack legal basis, and were based on “groundless rumors and lies.”
His depiction of the case sits well with broader Turkish interpretation of the whole legal process as a plot against Turkey.
The case sent rippling waves in Ankara, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other senior government members railing against the judge and prosecutor over involvement in an anti-Turkey scheme.
Turkish prosecutors even launched a probe into former Southern District of New York attorney Preet Bharara and acting attorney Joon Kim who launched and oversaw legal proceedings against Mr. Zarrab.
Former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Halkbank CEO Suleyman Aslan and seven other defendants are indicted by U.S. prosecutors for violating U.S. sanctions.
In a rare public response, both U.S. Judge Berman and acting Attorney Kim who currently oversee the sanctions trial strongly refuted Turkey’s claims and criticism. Ankara accuses the two of having links to Gulen movement, a charge that was regarded as ridiculous and baseless by both judge and the prosecutor.
Former Attorney Bharara called Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu a liar when the latter said U.S. prosecutor is very close to Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric whom the Erdogan government blames for a failed coup last year.
The cleric and his supporters strongly deny any link to the putsch.