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Judge blasts prosecutors in Iran-Venezuela sanctions case

June 11, 2020 GMT

A New York federal judge has scolded prosecutors for potentially withholding evidence against an Iranian businessman convicted of being a key nexus in growing ties between the Islamic republic and fellow U.S. adversary Venezuela.

In an unusual reversal, prosecutors last week dismissed charges against Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad, who had been found guilty in March of using a network of front companies to funnel through U.S. banks more than $115 million in payments related to a construction project in Venezuela to his family’s business in Iran, in violation of U.S. sanctions.

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Sadr had been free awaiting sentencing in August, when he faced a maximum of 125 years in prison for charges including money laundering, bank fraud and conspiracy to defraud the U.S.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in March praised the work of law enforcement officials who tried Sadr, saying in a news release that his conviction “shows that U.S. economic sanctions against Iran are for real, and violators will be exposed and prosecuted.”

But in a filing last week, he revealed there were “disclosure-related issues” that came up before, during and after the trial that would have altered Sadr’s defense. As a result, he said the government “has determined that it would not be in the interests of justice to further prosecute this case.”

In response to the request, Judge Alison Nathan on Tuesday reprimanded Berman for the sudden reversal. In a 9-point memo, she ordered prosecutors to identify all evidence the was potentially withheld, which attorneys were involved in the investigation and whether there was any misconduct.

Judge Nathan said recent developments “raised serious concerns about the conduct of the government.”

When trying a case, prosecutors are required to hand over any evidence that could help defendants prove their innocence and can face disciplinary action if they do not.

Sadr attorney Brian Heberlig said in an email to The Associated Press that he was pleased prosecutors decided to drop the case but was “disheartened by the significant disclosure violations that led to this extraordinary request.”

“Ali Sadr would have been exonerated by the jury had there been a level playing field and deserves to have the verdict set aside.,” Heberlig said.

Another of Sadr’s attorneys, Reid Weingarten, had complained in a court filing that his client has suffered “substantial reputational harm” on the basis of “an unfair trial marred by the government’s multiple constitutional violations.”

Sadr’s conviction had been one of the most prominent to date showing Iran’s growing influence in Venezuela. In 2006, the Stratus Group, his family’s Tehran-based conglomerate, established a subsidiary that was hired by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company to build 7,000 housing units for $475 million.

To hide the proceeds, Sadr and a co-conspirator acquired St. Kitts and Nevis passports and used fronts in the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Switzerland, according to the indictment.

Since then, the strategic partnership between the two U.S. adversaries has advanced even further, with Iran last month sending to Venezuela five tankers to help resolve fuel shortages that have led to days-long gas lines across the country.

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Goodman reported from Miami. AP writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.