Tuesday, December 1, 2020

U.S. DoJ drops charges against Iranian banker linked to murdered Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia

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The US department of justice has made an unusual decision to drop charges against a prominent Iranian banker who was convicted of bank fraud in March after prosecutors in New York said they did not have the resources to continue to prosecute the case on appeal.

The decision by the DOJ represents an extraordinary turn of events in an investigation that began in 2013 and was closely followed in Malta, where the defendant in the case controlled Pilatus Bank, which had ties to the country’s former prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and other top officials.

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In a statement on Friday night the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia – the Maltese journalist killed in a car bomb in 2017 who was investigating Pilatus Bank for corruption – called on Malta to extradite Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejadin to Europe from the US.

Sadr previously owned and served as chairman of Pilatus Bank, a Malta-based bank that was in effect shut down by the European Central Bank following Sadr’s arrest in the US in 2018 on charges of money laundering and sanctions busting.

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Prosecutors won their case against Sadr in March 2020 and the banker was convicted of five criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, bank fraud, and making false statements to federal officials. At the heart of the case were charges that Sadr had participated in a scheme to illegally funnel $115m (£88m) in payments for a Venezuelan construction project to Iranian individuals and companies.

After the trial ended and ahead of his planned sentencing in August, Sadr filed legal complaints about prosecutors’ handling of evidence in the case, including questions about whether US government lawyers had properly disclosed the evidence they had to Sadr’s lawyers.

In a statement released on Friday, the US attorney in New York asked a judge to dismiss the case, saying that it recognised that Sadr would have pursued different legal strategies if disclosures had been made to him during the trial.

Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney, said that he had considered the “resources that would be required” to address the issues and made a determination that it would “not be in the interests of justice to further prosecute the case”.

It was an extraordinary decision in part because the legal pursuit of Iranian sanctions busting has been considered a top priority for the DOJ under the Trump administration. Sadr is the son of one of Iran’s richest men and counted top Maltese officials as his guests at his June 2015 wedding at the Four Seasons in Florence, including Muscat and the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Keith Schembri.

Reid Weingarten, Sadr’s lawyer, told Bloomberg News he was not sure why the government brought the “extraordinary motion” to drop the case. “We hope it’s that they finally saw the case as we did – that it never should have been brought and it was compromised from the very beginning.”

A statement by the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation said the Maltese police and attorney general were not prevented from prosecuting Sadr on their own and said the US had ended its case on the basis of a technicality.

“It is now more important than ever that he is prosecuted in Malta, since he has destroyed Malta’s reputation in the process of using the country as a base for facilitating criminal activity, via Pilatus Bank,” the foundation said.

The Department of Justice and the State Department did not immediate return requests for comment.

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