A Turkish-Iranian businessman accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions did not show up for a second court hearing on November 16, fueling speculation that he has made a deal to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.
NBC News reported on November 16 that Reza Zarrab, a wealthy gold trader with ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, is now cooperating with U.S. prosecutors in a money- laundering case involving top Turkish officials.
The NBC report, which cited anonymous sources "with knowledge of the matter," said Zarrab is now out of the U.S. jail where he had been held since his arrest in March 2016 and is in the custody of U.S. prosecutors at an undisclosed location.
Bloomberg News, citing "two people familiar with the case," also reported on November 16 that Zarrab "remains in U.S. custody, but not in a federal jail. That sometimes happens when a defendant has agreed to serve as a government witness."
Zarrab and his lawyers failed to appear on November 16 for a hearing in the U.S. district court in Manhattan in preparation for his trial in the Iran sanctions case.
A lawyer for his co-defendant, Turkish bank executive Mehmet Akan Attila, said it was the second such pretrial hearing Zarrab has missed, and it appears Zarrab is no longer participating in the defense.
July selection for the Iran sanctions trial is scheduled to begin on November 20 and the trial is scheduled to begin on November 27.
NBC provided no details but suggested that Zarrab may be cooperating with authorities in connection with U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Erdogan offered former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn up to $15 million to secure Zarrab's release, as well arrange the deportation of Erdogan's top political rival, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in the United States.
Ankara accuses Gulen of being behind a failed 2016 coup against Erdogan. And Turkey has repeatedly pressed the White House to intervene in Zarrab's case and release him.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York declined to comment, as did Zarrab's lead defense attorney, Ben Brafman.
Zarrab's absence from court and speculation about his possible cooperation with prosecutors prompted the Turkish Foreign Ministry on November 15 to inquire about his whereabouts and health in a diplomatic note.
Turkish officials said the United States responded that his medical condition is good.
With reporting by AFP, Bloomberg News, NBC News, and Reuters