Zarrab investigation expands to Europe

Zarrab investigation expands to Europe

Where will the Zarrab case head next? This was the question. And last week, something happened which might give an idea about the boundaries of this massive investigation. After Reza Zarrab, the Turkish-Iranian businessman who was arrested last March in Miami, two Turkish citizens were caught, this time in Europe.

Nesteren Zarei Deniz, who was allegedly a part of the Zarrab network according to the report prepared by Turkish prosecutors over the Dec. 17, 2013, graft probe, and her husband, Bora Deniz, were detained in the Netherlands. They were held over a U.S. government request according to a source who is familiar with the case, but simultaneously released on bail, subsequently escaping to Turkey. 

It was a U.S. Congress source who drew my attention to Mrs. Zarei three years ago. According to the staffer of an influential Senator on Iran issues, the Zarei familly was allegedly helping the Iranian regime evade sanctions. I had talked to her on the phone, asking about the allegations and writing an article about the Turkish businesspeople who were on the radar of Americans in terms of the implementation of the Iranian sanctions. This call happened months before the Dec. 17 graft probe. Nesteren Zarei had denied the allegations, but after some quick research I conducted over our conversation, I found out that her father, Habibollah Zarei, and other family members were partners with the managers of Bank Mellat, an Iranian bank blacklisted by the U.S. for violating the sanctions, in some companies established in Turkey. Not surprisingly, she never answered my phone calls again.

So, when I learned that she was detained in the Netherlands with her husband, I sent her a message again, saying I’d like to talk to her about the incident in the Netherlands. This time she replied to me quickly, saying: “I request that you not write about the Netherlands issue. You have damaged and targeted me enough. Please end this.” 

I contacted U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office, which is conducting the Zarrab investigation. Spokesperson Jim Margoilin also said he talked to the prosecutors on my inquiry, and decided not to comment.

But Dutch officials confirmed the incident. “On the 21st of July, the couple (Zareis) was arrested at Schiphol Airport upon the request of the U.S. government,” said A.M. Zwiers, the spokesperson of the District of North Netherlands Public Prosecutor’s Office. But according to Zwiers, next day, the Dutch investigative judge decided to suspend their custody under certain conditions even though the public prosecutor had asked the judge to keep the two persons in custody. 

When I contacted the court’s office, the spokesperson, Sarah-Jane Rose, told me the court had set the following conditions for their release. 1) 50,000-euro bail per person. 2) Hand over their passports. 3) Provide an address in the Netherlands for their stay. 4) Check in daily at the police station. 

But then, guess what. Zwiers confirmed to me that the last time they checked in at the police station was on Aug. 27, meaning they escaped. “The U.S. government wants those two persons, but in the Netherlands we have no criminal charges against them. So, if they escaped to Turkey or perhaps to another country right now, then the U.S. government has to ask the authorities there for any further help,” Zwiers said. 

So, what does it mean? What makes the detainment of the Zarei couple in the Netherlands important? This incident is a milestone in the Zarrab investigation because it shows how U.S. prosecutors are determined to pursue this case even outside of America. It also demonstrates that 351 people who are on the list of Mr. Bharara are not safe not only if they come to the U.S. but even in Europe.

This incident also proves how members of the U.S. judiciary must be extra careful in this case in terms of the scale of the investigation and its potential results. I had mentioned about the possible risk of bad optics in the case in May when I mentioned Judge Richard Berman’s trip to Turkey in May 2014. He was invited to Turkey by an allegedly Gülenist law firm that was said to have been sponsored by the United Nations, and he gave interviews to local media criticizing the reaction of the Turkish government to the Dec. 17 graft probe that the Ankara administration considered a plot against itself. And given that the U.S. attorney included some Dec. 17 graft probe documents in the case, and the U.N. later denied its sponsorship of the event, I kindly noted how U.S. Supreme Court justices routinely recuse themselves from cases simply because of a concern for bad optics.

The motion that Zarrab’s lawyers submitted last week to recuse the court because of the same reasons is a warning to Bharara as well. After the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey which was allegedly triggered by Gülenists in Turkey, now it is Bharara’s turn to be careful in his references. Both the Gülenists and the Turkish government need this angle in this case. 

Gülenists need it to be justified on a criminal who allegedly bribed several high-level Turkish officials. The Turkish government, meanwhile, needs a Gülenist angle in the Zarrab trial to politicize the case and question the verdict that the court will pass on Zarrab.