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Federal judge dismisses trade secrets, fraud charges against Iranian professor during trial

A gavel cracks down. (Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid/U.S. Air Force)

A federal judge in Cleveland dismissed charges against an Iranian professor and scientist mid-trial, ruling the evidence federal prosecutors presented against him was not sufficient to show that he stole trade secrets while working at Case Western Reserve University.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin made his ruling last Friday, after prosecutors finished putting on their witnesses against Sirous Asgari. The judge’s ruling effectively brings the end to a years-long case the U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued against the professor.

It’s also the latest act by a federal judge whose rulings in the case were twice overturned by a higher court.

Asgari, who studies metallurgical science, was indicted in 2016 on charges of theft of trade secrets, wire fraud and visa fraud. Prosecutors said the professor violated U.S. sanctions law as it pertains to Iran.

They said Asgari came to the U.S. in December 2011 on a tourist visa and did not say he planned to visit Ohio. In fact, he traveled to Cleveland to meet with faculty at Case, according to court records.

Asgari again came to the U.S. in November 2012 and started work on a project at the Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials, a laboratory at Case, courts records said. The project, paid for by the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research, was to create and produce anti-corrosive stainless steel.

Prosecutors said Asgari sought and obtained a tourist visa, and not one for work.

Asgari left the U.S. in April 2013. Before that, he signed a non-disclosure agreement that said he would not reveal information about the project he worked on because it included trade secrets, prosecutors said.

While in the U.S., Asgari sent emails to students in Iran, which included some of the project’s technical information. Later, information he provided ended up in an economic proposal for the petrochemical industry in Iran, according to court records. The proposal touted Asgari obtaining information about technology that was previously only possessed by a company in the U.S., prosecutors said

Asgari denied the charges. A jury was picked on Tuesday and witnesses testified for three days. He is now in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a spokesman said.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan declined comment in an email. Federal Public Defender Stephen Newman also declined comment.

Gwin’s ruling was the third one he had made against prosecutors in the case. In April 2018, the judge suppressed emails the FBI obtained from a pair of search warrants and said an agent wrote an affidavit that contained “wildly misleading” information.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gwin’s ruling in March and wrote that the agent did not omit important information.

The Cleveland judge also ordered prosecutors to turn over classified information to Asgari’s attorney, against the wishes of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The 6th Circuit later overturned that ruling as well, writing that the information was not relevant to the charges Asgari faced.


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