Turkish gold trader seeks U.S. judge's recusal in Iran sanctions case

August 30, 2016 6:28 PM EDT

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By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Turkish gold trader accused of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran on Tuesday asked a federal judge to recuse himself, citing remarks he made about a series of earlier Turkish prosecutions targeting him and others.

Lawyers for Reza Zarrab, 33, filed the motion a week before the judge they want recused, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan, was set to hear arguments over whether to dismiss the indictment against Zarrab, a wealthy businessman.

Berman's chambers declined comment. Spokesmen for Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, whose office is prosecuting the case, did not respond to requests for comment.

U.S. authorities arrested Zarrab in March and accused him and two others of engaging in hundreds of millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of Iran's government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade U.S. sanctions.

Iranian-born Zarrab, who has pleaded not guilty, is being held without bail, after Berman in June rejected his request to be released on a $50 million bond and be detained at a Manhattan apartment.

Tuesday's motion focused on comments Berman made in 2014 at an Istanbul conference and in Turkish media following the collapse of a high-profile investigation in Turkey involving government officials and Zarrab.

In that case, Turkish prosecutors charged Zarrab in December 2013, along with several others, and accused him of paying cabinet-level governmental officials and bank officers bribes to facilitate transactions benefiting Iran.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who was then prime minister and who U.S. prosecutors said has "close ties" to Zarrab, at the time cast the case as a coup attempt orchestrated by his political enemies.

Several prosecutors were removed from the case, police investigators reassigned, and the investigation was dropped.

In his 2014 remarks, Berman commented on the Turkish probe, calling it "inappropriate to change the rules of the game while the game is taking place," Zarrab's lawyers said. Berman also said "rule of law is under attack in Turkey," the lawyers added.

Zarrab's lawyers said "reasonable observers could conclude that the court already formulated opinions, prior to this case, bearing on Mr. Zarrab's purported criminality and his relationship with officials of the Turkish government."

Zarrab's lawyers added the conference was sponsored by a law firm where several lawyers were charged after July's coup attempt in Turkey, which has led to purges of the military, civil service, judiciary and academia.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Alan Crosby)

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