Rudy W. Giuliani was recently hired to join the legal team of Reza Zarrab, the dual Turkish-Iranian national facing money laundering charges for violating US sanctions on Iran. Giuliani will not defend Zarrab in court. Rather, he was retained to explore a potential dispensation to the criminal charges. Going over the head of prosecutors undermines the administration of justice. Giuliani also undermined US interests by defending an Iran sanctions evader who smuggled gold to help Iran pay for its nuclear program.
A curious confluence of stakeholders is engaged in the Zarrab case.
Notably, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan has taken a special interest. Erdogan raised the case with Vice President Joe Biden when they met at the UN last September. A top Turkish official also met then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch in late 2016 to seek Zarrab’s release from US custody.
Efforts to petition the US government are ongoing. Giuliani and former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey recently travelled to Turkey where they met Erdogan to discuss getting the charges dropped. They informed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions of their Ankara trip beforehand.
Colluding with Erdogan reflects poorly on Giuliani.
Erdogan is trying to jam through a constitutional referendum on April 16, replacing Turkey’s parliamentary system with an executive presidency that would give Erdogan near dictatorial powers.
Erdogan has become an outlier in Europe. When German and Dutch officials refused to allow Turkish ministers to campaign in their countries, Erdogan accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “Nazi measures” and called the Dutch government “Nazi remnants and fascists.”
Erdogan’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned of “holy wars” and the Interior Minister threatened to cancel the EU-Turkey deal on migrants, flooding Europe with refugees.
Erdogan has allegedly committed war crimes against the Kurds. In March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report indicating that 2,000 people had been killed in Turkey’s Southeast where Kurds predominate.
The European Parliament (EP) voted in November to suspend negotiations with Turkey on its EU candidacy, citing violations of international humanitarian law. The EP also expressed grave concern over the arrest and dismissal of 140,000 people by Erdogan after the failed coup of July 15, 2016.
There is history of Erdogan’s ties to Zarrab. In December 2013, Zarrab was arrested in Istanbul and charged with bribing cabinet ministers. Taped conversations implicated Erdogan and his family members in the corruption scandal.
Erdogan shielded Zarrab, vouching for his character, and calling him a “philanthropist” whose work had “contributed to the country” (including a foundation run by Erdogan’s wife, Emine). The charges against Zarrab were dropped. Police and prosecutors involved in the case were dismissed.
Zarrab must have thought he was untouchable, until his arrest at Miami International Airport on March 19, 2016. The US Attorney in the Southern District charged Zarrab with money laundering, defrauding the United States, and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which regulates Iran sanctions. If convicted, Zarrab will spend many years in jail.
The US Attorney is investigating other persons of interest. When Iran was denied access to the SWIFT international money transfer system as a result of US sanctions, the Iranian government developed a strategy for bypassing SWIFT using Turkey’s Halkbank. Mehmet Hakan Atilla, Halkbank’s vice president, was arrested in New York on March 27, accused of “a years-long scheme to violate American sanctions laws by helping Reza Zarrab to use U.S. financial institutions to engage in prohibited financial transactions that illegally funneled millions of dollars to Iran.”
Giuliani should never have joined Zarrab’s team. Giuliani discredited himself and his employer, the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, by agreeing to represent an Iranian sanctions evader.
The US Attorney should continue to prosecute with appropriate zeal the case of Reza Zarrab. The trial is now set for August. The trial must proceed apace.
It would be a huge miscarriage of justice if the Justice Department succumbed to political pressure. Justice may be for sale in Turkey, where politicians intervene to protect their cronies. The administration of justice is not subject to political influence in the United States.
David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a Senior Adviser and Foreign Affairs Expert at the US Department of State under Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama. His recent book is titled An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.