Amish Market Owner in Jail for Alleged Dealings with Cuba

Adem Arici in 2007.
COURTESY OF AMISH MARKET
Adem Arici in 2007.

Not so long ago, Adem Arici was on top of the gourmet grocery world in Lower Manhattan. The co-founder and former co-owner of the chain of Amish and Zaytuna Markets, with as many as four Downtown locations, Arici was hailed as a Financial District pioneer when he opened his Amish Market on Cedar Street in 1999. And he became a sympathetic symbol of post-Sept. 11 business distress after his store was ruined in the attacks.

 

Today, with all but two of his stores closed or sold and his Tribeca market at 53 Park Place in bankruptcy, Arici’s world is the Westchester County Jail, where he has been held without bail for seven months.

 

Arici, 50, is charged with conspiracy to violate the Trading with the Enemy Act and witness tampering. The “enemy” is Cuba and the trading, federal prosecutors allege, was investing in real estate in the country, where the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo since 1962.

 

The government claims Arici tried to cover up his actions by telling a witness to lie to investigators.

 

Arici, who has dual Turkish and U.S. citizenship, vehemently denies the charges and insists he should be allowed to post bail, which he says has been denied three times.

 

“I want to get the bail and continue with the investigation,” Arici told the Trib by phone, in his first interview since the arrest. “That should be the right way to treat a human being so I can continue with my life.”

 

Prosecutors claim that Arici went to Cuba last September to do business. His lawyer, Marc E. Verzani, who was with him, is a co-defendant in the case.

 

“The defendants were prepared to put their business interests before compliance of a clearly established trade embargo with Cuba,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

 

The pair was joined by an unnamed associate who became a “cooperating witness” and implicated his companions in alleged illegal activities, including, in Arici’s case, the investment of “millions of dollars in Cuban real estate and businesses.” Along with conspiracy and witness tampering charges, Verzani is  accused of obstruction of justice for allegedly lying under oath in court. He has denied all the charges.

 

Homeland Security investigators persuaded Arici’s and Verzani’s associate to record their conversations with him.  The witness, who Arici says he has known well for 10 years but declined to identify publicly, has not been charged.

 

A conspiracy conviction carries a maximum penalty of five years and $250,000; witness tampering up to 20 years.

 

The Murray Street entrance to the Amish Market in Tribeca, the store that Arici oversaw before his arrest in December.
CARL GLASSMAN / TRIBECA TRIB
The Murray Street entrance to the Amish Market in Tribeca, the store that Arici oversaw before his arrest in December.

Arici claims that a Turkish group sent him to Cuba on a religious and a humanitarian mission as part of a Muslim holiday in which lambs are slaughtered  and the meat is given to the poor. Ac­cording to Arici, who is Muslim and speaks Span­ish, the Turkish group paid for 200 lambs and all his expenses.

 

“They wired me the money. I have the proof,” Arici said. “I didn’t charge for my time, I didn’t make money to go there, I did it for charity, for the good.”

 

Arici insists he could not have bought property in Cuba. “A foreigner cannot have any real estate in Cuba. Period. It says in the law.”

 

“If he is not guilty of violating [the Trading with the Enemy Act],” Arici’s lawyer, Jared Scharf, wrote in a letter to U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel, “it is unlikely that he is guilty of tampering with witnesses.”

 

Arici was denied bail because he is “a flight risk,” said Herbert Hadad, a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman. “[He has] two passports and he’s been charged with a serious crime, trading with the enemy.”

 

Scharf says there is more to it.

 

For more than two years, according to Scharf, the Internal Revenue Service  has been investigating what it says is $54 million in missing earnings from stores co-owned by Arici. So far, there are no indictments but the missing money, Scharf said, makes Arici a greater flight risk in the eyes of the judge.

 

In his letter to the judge, Scharf argued that the case against Arici may be a tactic to pressure him to plead guilty to tax evasion. He said that the arrest of Verzani, who testified in the case, may have been meant to further discredit him.

 

Arici says he had nothing to do with the missing money and claims his problems stem from the actions of some  partners. “There are many stores, many owners, many corporations,” Arici said. “It has nothing to do with me personally.”

 

As a matter of policy, Hadad said, he cannot comment on government investigations.

 

Scharf maintains that the case should be dismissed because Arici is being targeted for a violation that is normally not  criminally prosecuted. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Aug. 9. “Mr. Arici is languishing in jail for a crime that is rarely if ever enforced and for which I believe he is not guilty,” Scharf wrote to the judge.

 

In a review of enforcement actions by the federal Office of Foreign Assets Control, which metes out penalties for violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Trib could find no criminal actions taken by the government, only civil penalties. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the average penalty to individuals for business dealings with Cuba between Jan­uary 2004 and March 2010, the most recent figures provided in the report, was less than $3,000. The Obama administration fa­vors taking Cuba off the “enemy” list, which also includes North Korea, Iran and Syria.

 

In the meantime, things aren’t the same at Tribeca’s Amish Market, said Manager Jamal Miah.

 

“It’s completely different for business because customers know that Adem is arrested,” said Miah, 27, a Bang­ladeshi immigrant who began working at the store as a cleaner at age 18. “They ask, ‘How long is he going away? How come he doesn’t come out?’”

 

Miah called Arici “like a father” to him. He said he cried when he heard of the arrest.

 

God bless him that he might come out as soon as possible,” he said.