Former Flynn business partner pleads not guilty to lobbying for Turkey
The former business partner of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's ex-national security adviser, has pleaded not guilty to secretly lobbying for Turkey.
Bijan Rafiekian entered a not guilty plea in federal court in the US state of Virginia on Tuesday, Reuters reported, a day after he was charged with lobbying for a foreign government without disclosing those efforts as required by law and providing false statements to the US Justice Department about that work.
The lobbying aimed at securing the extradition of Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen to Turkey, a rival of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan whom Ankara blames for a failed 2016 coup. Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US since 1999, denies the allegations.
Rafiekian, a former director at the US Export-Import Bank and co-founder of the Flynn Intel Group, was indicted on Monday along with Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, who has not yet responded to his charges.
The Washington Post reported that Rafiekian and Alptekin conspired to illegally lobby US government officials and influence public opinion in the US against Gulen, according to the indictment against them.
Rafiekian will go on trial starting on 11 February, Reuters reported, citing the court records.
The Turkish government has repeatedly called on Washington to extradite Gulen to Turkey, where they want him to stand trial for his alleged crimes, and the case has been a source of conflict between the NATO allies.
On Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevut Cavusoglu said Trump told Erdogan at a recent G20 summit in Argentina that the US "was working on extraditing Gulen and other people".
A senior White House official disputed that claim a day later, however, saying on Monday that the US president did not commit to the extradition.
The case against Rafiekian and Alptekin was built in part on information provided by Flynn, whose sentencing for lying to the FBI in relation to his contacts with the then Russian ambassador to the US was postponed on Tuesday.
Flynn, who served as Trump's national security adviser at the start of his presidency, has also admitted to lying about his role in the Turkish lobbying effort and has been cooperating with prosecutors on the probe.
In March 2017, US media reported that Flynn had a meeting with Turkish government officials in 2016, during which they discussed the possibility of carrying out "a covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy [Gulen] away”.
Flynn and his son would have received $15m for returning Gulen to Turkey, the Wall Street Journal reported at the time, citing anonymous sources.
At Tuesday's arraignment, US District Judge Anthony Trenga, who will oversee the case, asked the prosecutors about the whereabouts of Alptekin, who through a spokesman denied the charges against him on Monday.
Alptekin was believed to be in Turkey and was not expected to appear to face the charges, said Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the US attorney's office in the Eastern District of Virginia, Reuters reported.