Jury selection for a trial surrounding a conspiracy to help Iran evade economic sanctions was starting Monday, despite the absence of the star defendant, an international gold trader who had been trying to broker a diplomatic solution to a case.
The case against Reza Zarrab, a citizen of Turkey and Iran, has strained relations between the U.S. and Turkey. On Monday, the government there depicted the trial as a conspiracy, with Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag describing Zarrab as a "hostage" who he claimed was being forced to testify against Turkey.
But Zarrab wasn't in court early Monday, and had not participated in pre-trial activities for weeks. Zarrab's criminal lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, declined to comment this month on anything related to his client.
Lawyers were meeting with the judge behind closed doors.
Earlier this year, Zarrab hired former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to try and broker a diplomatic solution to the case. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asked the U.S. to release him.
Adding to the mystery, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons began reporting on its website that Zarrab had been released from custody on Nov. 8.
Prosecutors said he was still "in federal custody," but wouldn't say where. The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, declined to answer questions about his status.
Lawyers for deputy CEO of Halkbank, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, were in Manhattan federal court Monday for the start of jury selection. Openings in the case were expected next week.
The prosecution was little noticed by Americans when it began, but was a major development in Turkey.
Zarrab, who is married to Turkish pop star and TV personality Ebru Gundes, had initially been arrested in that country in 2013 as part of a sweeping corruption investigation involving the state bank, Halkbank, and several top Erdogan lieutenants.
But prosecutors and police involved in the corruption accusations were removed from duty and the charges were later dropped.