Preet Bharara has prosecuted mobsters from the Gambino family, Islamic terrorists, Wall Street insiders and top New York lawmakers. But it was a money-laundering case announced this week that has made the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York a bona fide celebrity on social media, and elevated him into a national obsession — in Turkey.
Bharara gained almost 250,000 new followers on Twitter, many of them Turkish, after he announced Monday that a grand jury had indicted a controversial Turkish Iranian businessman on suspicion of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Although the case mostly involves Reza Zarrab’s dealings with the government in Iran — rather than in Turkey — many Turkish citizens suspect Zarrab, 33, of eluding justice in a separate corruption case in their own country. But since that case collapsed, many see Bharara as their best hope of providing justice.
Twitter users have Photoshopped Bharara’s face onto Superman’s body and have been offering to send the U.S. attorney gifts, including Turkish delight sweets, Turkish kebab and Turkish rugs.
NBA player Enes Kanter of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who is from Turkey, made a jersey with Bharara’s name on it and then tweeted a photo of himself wearing it. “Proud of your good work. Keep it up!! Bharara The Justice Hunter,” Kanter wrote.
In his only public acknowledgment of the mania, Bharara, who was born in India, wrote to one Turkish user on Twitter, “Well, I do love shish kebab but I don't think I can accept gifts just for doing my job.”
The remark was retweeted more than 37,000 times. That’s a bigger response than Kanye West usually gets.
A spokeswoman for Bharara’s office declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
The allegations against Zarrab don’t exactly resemble the O.J. Simpson trial in terms of salaciousness, yet they are quite colorful in their own right.
Zarrab, who was arrested in Miami on Saturday, is accused of being centrally involved in a conspiracy to violate U.S. sanctions on Iran by moving around hundreds of millions of dollars worth of transactions on behalf of the Iranian government and businesses.
U.S. investigators say Zarrab and two unarrested co-conspirators, Camelia Jamshidy, 29, and Hossein Najafzadeh, 65, used a series of companies in multiple countries — including several in Turkey — to launder transactions linked to the Iranian government.
Zarrab’s office was at one time considering pledging support to Iran’s central bank to intentionally get around U.S. sanctions, according to a letter drafted in 2011 by his office and obtained by U.S. investigators.
The Zarrab family, the letter said, “considers it to be our national and moral duty” to give any kind of cooperation to carry out “anti-sanction policies,” according to the indictment.
The charges against Zarrab and the other two defendants include defrauding the U.S., violating U.S. sanctions, money laundering and fraud. Conviction on the fraud charge alone carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
A temporary attorney assigned to Zarrab in Florida, where he awaits extradition to New York, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Zarrab, who lives in Turkey and is married to a Turkish pop star, was arrested in Turkey in 2013 in a complicated corruption case that involved allegations of bribing cabinet ministers in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
Zarrab reportedly maintained his innocence, and the charges were dropped after prosecutors in the case were accused of being anti-government, which only raised suspicion among the Turkish opposition, the Hurriyet Daily News reported.
People believed the case “was literally covered up by the government,” said Irem Koker, a former Turkish journalist and columnist now studying international affairs at Columbia University in New York. “And when he was arrested in the U.S., in Miami, and this 21-page indictment was revealed, people were like, ‘Yes! Finally someone is going to do something about these guys.’”
“Secretly what people are hoping is that the investigation here in the U.S. will somehow reveal the role that [top Turkish officials] have played in all of these allegedly illegal transactions,” Koker said in a phone interview.
Koker laughed as she read through tweets by users praying for Bharara and making jokes in Turkish, including one suggesting that he arrest Zarrab’s wife so that she can sing for him.
“I wonder if he’s going to hire someone who can speak Turkish so they can translate the tweets,” Koker said.