A US judge sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a banker at Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank, to 32 months in prison on Wednesday after he was convicted earlier this year of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade USA sanctions. The Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade US sanctions has been convicted by a jury in NY after a trial that sowed distrust between the two nations. As a result of this scheme, he and his co-conspirators caused USA banks to unknowingly process transactions on behalf of the Iranian government, the Justice Department said.
Watched intensely from NY to Istanbul, the proceedings ended with a likewise extraordinary 32-month sentence, a prison term lower than what prosecutors or even defense attorneys requested.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman ordered Mehmet Hakan Atilla to spend 32 months in prison, including 14 months he has already served after his arrest previous year during a business trip to NY on behalf of his employer, Turkey's state-run Halkbank. Zarrab pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges and testified against Atilla on behalf of the USA government.
The judge underlined that Zarrab convincingly explained during the trial the involvement of Atilla in the entire scheme.
Rejecting that notion today, Berman depicted Atilla as a bank employee who was simply "following orders" for his corrupt boss at Halkbank. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the trial as a "chain of serious plots" against his government. With this sentence, Atilla will be able to go back to Turkey next year.
"This is the biggest sanction evasion prosecution in the United States that we're aware of", said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard.
Prosecutors believed that these sanctions violations helped Iran at the heart of negotiations over the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
But the prosecutor's strong words did not match a voice and demeanor that were otherwise listless, and with good reason.
Judge Berman rejected the prosecution's portrayal of Atilla as the "architect of the scheme".
Turkish banker sentenced for 32 months for role in scheme to help Iran avoid US sanctions
"If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be nearly equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal", Erdogan said.
Victor Rocco, one of Atilla's lawyers, said his client would appeal his conviction, but called the sentence "fair".
Alsan, who has been indicted for more than a year, remains at large.
The judge said he thought that a life sentence would not be appropriate.
Rocco added that Berman's mercy would illustrate to the Turkish people: "Americans aren't bullies".
Judge Berman noted the feverish pitch of some observers of Atilla's trial, particularly in Turkey, when he promised to make a transcript of the sentencing available to the public later Wednesday. He demanded Atilla be sent to his family and his country.
"Apart from my family, I have no other priorities", the statement said.
Zarrab testified that he paid over $50 million in bribes to Turkey's finance minister to help the sanctions-busting scheme flourish after he initially encountered resistance from a Halkbank executive who feared he was "too popular" to carry out trades involving Iranian money without drawing attention to them.