Turkish banker sentenced to 32 months in Iran sanctions case

Image: Mehmet Hakan Atilla testifies during his trial on corruption charges
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Elizabeth Williams
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A federal judge sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker at Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank, to 32 months in prison on Wednesday after he was found guilty of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions.

Atilla, a 47-year-old Turkish citizen, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan.

The case has strained diplomatic relations between the United States and Turkey, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has condemned it as a political attack on his government.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of about 20 years for Atilla, who worked as a deputy general manager at Halkbank.

The defendant's lawyers had argued that federal guidelines recommended a term of just 46 to 57 months, and asked for a sentence "dramatically below" that length.

Atilla was found guilty on Jan. 3 of conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions law. His conviction followed a four-week trial in which Atilla testified in his own defense.

Prosecutors have said that, beginning around 2012, Atilla was involved in a scheme to help Iran spend oil and gas revenues abroad using fraudulent gold and food transactions through Halkbank, violating U.S. sanctions.

According to prosecutors, the central figure in the scheme was wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges, and testified for several days as the U.S. government's star witness against Atilla.

Zarrab, who has yet to be sentenced, said on the witness stand during Atilla's trial that he bribed Turkish officials, and that Erdogan personally signed off on parts of the scheme while serving as Turkey's prime minister.

Erdogan has said the U.S. case was based on evidence fabricated by followers of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom he has also blamed for a failed 2016 coup attempt.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla testifies during his trial on corruption charges in New York on Dec. 15, 2017.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla testifies during his trial on corruption charges in New York on Dec. 15, 2017.Elizabeth Williams

The Turkish president has repeatedly condemned Atilla's conviction, most recently in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Tuesday.

"If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal," Erdogan said.

Atilla was arrested in New York in March 2017, a year after Zarrab's arrest in Florida.