U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan 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, according to published reports.
He was convicted in January on five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy. He was acquitted on one count of money laundering. His conviction followed a four-week trial in which Atilla testified in his own defense.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence of about 20 years for Atilla, a 47-year-old Turkish citizen. They maintained that Atilla used his position as deputy general manager for international banking at Turkish state bank Halkbank to help build and protect a scheme that enabled billions of dollars in profits from Iranian oil sales to flow through world financial markets since 2011.
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. He said that the 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.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, the Turkish president said, “If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal,” Erdogan said.
“This is the biggest sanction evasion prosecution in the United States that we’re aware of,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard.
“Mr. Atilla was, as the defense suggests, somewhat of a cog in the wheel, and I would add a somewhat reluctant one,” Judge Berman said during a three-hour court proceeding that mostly featured the judge explaining how he chose a far lighter sentence. Berman said a lengthier prison term would be “inappropriate, unreasonable and unfair.”
Atilla has already served 14 months in prison since his arrest last year during a business trip to New York. That time will be credited toward his sentence, allowing him to return to Turkey in about a year.
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.
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.
Atilla was arrested in New York in March 2017, a year after Zarrab’s arrest in Florida.