International Political Intrigue Spans Continents in ‘Treasure Seekers’

Roberta Seret

 

New York City

January 8, 2017

 

Rubbing sleep from her dark eyes, Marina Johannes took the circular steps from the second floor of her bedroom suite to the first floor of her Fifth Avenue duplex penthouse. She was already calculating her day, considering how much time she needed with her team of researchers at the Soho lab. She estimated that it would take at least three hours to review which herbs and plants they could consider for the new, organic line.

 

They were searching for a long-lasting, natural property that would hydrate the skin during sultry weather. After that, she would need two hours uptown at her Madison Avenue and 51st Street showroom to review the spring mail-order brochure with the art department.

 

Marina was New York’s leading cosmetologist, having made her reputation on her expertise for making women’s skin more beautiful.

 

She put the lights on in the kitchen and looked out onto the terrace to Central Park, which was a vision of snow. It reminded her of mornings in Romania when she was a girl, and the trees in Transylvania were covered in white frost. Her mother would prepare for her tea with honey and toast, thick with rose petal jam.

 

Marina felt the same way now—happy, for she was already planning her trip in March to see her friends, Mica, Anca, and Cristina, in Paris for Cristina’s fashion show.

 

Marina opened her computer on the marble counter to check the day’s news, and then switched on the espresso machine. She waited a minute until the beans ground automatically and a shot of espresso flowed into her cup.

 

She sipped her coffee while she scanned the news and then stopped, startled, as she read the headline:

RAFSANJANI, IRAN’S MOST POWERFUL MAN, IS DEAD

She read on: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, died today in Tehran, January 8th, 2017, at the age of eighty-three. He was considered by many to be the richest man in Iran. He was president of his country from 1989-1997. 1989.

 

It had been Christmas season in Romania. There were no holiday dinners that year, no good tidings, not even heat. It was a time of revolution, bloody uprisings and people dying for freedom. Ceausescu had been executed on Christmas day, his death, a gift to all Romanians. Yet, there was a mystery about the days before his execution. Why had he traveled to Tehran with dozens of trunks when there was a revolution going on in Romania?

 

It was said that Ceausescu had deposited $1 billion dollars-worth of gold in Rafsanjani’s new private bank.

 

Marina remembered that after Ceausescu’s death, the revolutionaries took inventory of the dictator’s wealth–his palaces, his art collection, his diamonds, even his hunting lodge walled with gold coins and bathrooms with 14-karat gold toilet seats. She wondered what had happened to Ceausescu’s gold in Iran. The Romanian government was never able to find it. No one from his family had ever claimed it. Had it remained in Tehran with the president?

 

Yet Rafsanjani did not have enough time to spend Ceausescu’s billion dollars’ worth of gold. Under his administration, Iran had been sanctioned because of terrorism and its uranium enrichment programs. Iran’s economy was blocked. How could he get gold out of the country? Especially since, after his presidency, he was suspected by his political enemies of being such a rich businessman.

 

She wondered who could have helped Rafsanjani with his gold from Ceausescu’s corrupt deals and terrorist partnerships with Gaddafi, Arafat, Ali Bhutto, and North Korea’s Kim Jung Il. A billion dollars of gold from Romania, such a poor country, while the people lived for twenty-four years under a ruthless dictatorship with little food, little heat, little light, no rights, no freedom, no life. Marina wished she knew what had happened to that gold, deposited in Tehran. No one had found the treasure in all these years. Yet questions surrounding its fate lingered in Marina’s thoughts, as they did in the thoughts of many alongside her, trying to find their way out of the legacy of deprivation the dictator had left them.

 

Marina made herself another cup of espresso and continued:

Iran and Turkey, Partners in Gold

Speculation about gold laundering between Iran and Turkey has led American prosecutors to the world’s richest gold smuggler, Recep Sharatt, who was arrested last year in Miami on March 19, 2016. He had been on record for past crimes committed in the States. Sharatt is thirty-three years old, has quadruple citizenship from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Macedonia, and has amassed a fortune. He was charged with being the one who had laundered the gold for Iran and Turkey. His holdings include twenty mansions, nine yachts, two private helicopters, a jet plane, a stable of Arabian horses, sports cars, Impressionist paintings, and a gold-plated pistol.

 

There was a photo of Sharatt, looking calm and confident, answering questions from journalists, as he was being transferred from Miami to a Manhattan prison. The reporters wanted to learn more about him. Why had he come to the United States when he knew he’d be arrested? They called him an enigma; someone not to be trusted.

 

From the U.S. Department of Justice

Office of Public Affairs

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

An indictment was unsealed in the Southern District of New York against Recep Sharatt, a resident of Turkey and citizen of Turkey and other countries, for engaging in hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of transactions on behalf of the government of Iran and Iranian entities, which were barred by U.S. sanctions. He is accused of laundering the proceeds of illegal transactions and defrauding eight financial institutions that have their headquarters in New York City.  

 

Sharatt was arrested on March 19, 2016, in Miami’s international airport, and then transferred to a Manhattan prison on March 28, 2016. Recep Sharatt is charged with conspiracies to defraud the United States, to violate international embargo laws, to commit bank fraud, and to commit money laundering. His conspiracy to defraud the United States carries a maximum sentence of fifty-five years in prison. Any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge of the case. The charges contained in this indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

 

Marina put down the Times, took an apple from the counter, peeled it, and returned her attention to the map featured in the article. She saw the bold letters: ROMANIA. She remembered Ceausescu’s trial, a trial that had been aired on TV on Christmas day, just hours before he and his wife had been executed. The judge of the case had told Ceausescu, “You would have been betteroff to have stayed in Tehran with your gold.”

 

Ceausescu went to Tehran on December 18, 1989, and stayed two days. He returned to Bucharest with a group of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to protect him, compliments of president Rafsanjani. It was the peak of Romania’s bloody Revolution. Marina’s thoughts went to Sharatt, the Iranian and Turkish citizen who was arrested in the United States. What was he doing in Miami?

 

 

Then her cell phone rang and interrupted her thoughts. It was her assistant, Janet, saying she’d be twenty minutes late for their meeting–New York traffic. Marina told her not to rush, and eturned to finish the article:

Sharatt was detained at Miami’s airport as he went through Customs. He entered the States with his wife, Deniz Akar, Turkey’s famous rock singer and music composer for cinema. Traveling with them was their five-year-old daughter. They were on their way to visit Disney World. But he was taken into custody because of a criminal record issued by the District Attorney’s Office of the Southern district of New York dating from 2013. Sharatt was subsequently flown to New York City, booked and imprisoned for conspiring to evade international sanctions.

 

In 2013, he was accused by the District Attorney’s Office of the Southern district of New York in absentia, as an accomplice to eight international banks that have headquarters in Manhattan and are under investigation for facilitating the laundering of money for Iran. Sharatt was their conduit to the scheme. For this reason, he was taken from Miami to be booked and incarcerated in Manhattan. His wife and daughter were immediately released in Miami and allowed to return to Istanbul. Sharatt’s trial date is set for November 2017; that is, if there is no interference. Judge Robert Friedman, who is presiding over the case, has detained Sharatt in Manhattan’s Correction Center without bail because of his political connections.

 

The Attorney General’s office of Manhattan explained why there would be no bail: “There are powerful political leaders involved in this case. Sharatt has a personal contact with the president of Turkey, Riza Tarik Ozogant, whose administration is directly involved in this case. Ozogant has already spoken several times about Sharatt’s detention to President Hommett who has contacted Attorney General Larissa Linde to discuss extradition for Sharatt. President Ozogant would do anything to get him back to Turkey.

 

The court doesn’t trust that if Sharatt goes free on bail, that he’d remain in the States. There are also his relations with Iran. Marina studied the map. She hoped there’d be more news in the coming days, news about Turkey and Iran… and the final days of Romania’s dictator with all that gold.

 

This is an excerpt from Treasure Seekers, a new book by Roberta Seret. It’s published here with permission.

 

Highbrow Magazine

--Wayzgoose Press

--Pedro Szekely (Flickr; Flickr – Creative Commons)

--Ion Chibzii (Flickr, Creative Commons)

--Mahdi Kalhor (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

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