Turkish banker gets 32 months prison in U.S. case over Iran sanctions

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a banker at Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank HALKB.IS, to 32 months in prison on Wednesday after he was convicted earlier this year 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 said the central figure in the sanctions-dodging 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.

Victor Rocco, one of Atilla’s lawyers, said his client would appeal his conviction, but called the sentence “fair.”

Atilla, who worked as a deputy general manager at Halkbank, has already spent 14 months in jail. That time will count toward his sentence, and he could be freed early for good behavior.

There was no immediate response to the sentencing from the Turkish government or Halkbank. The bank has previously said that all of its transactions have been lawful.

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

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However, Berman said before imposing his sentence that the evidence at trial showed Atilla was a minor player in the sanctions-dodging scheme, and “at times a reluctant one at that,” largely following orders from his supervisor.

Berman also said Atilla “appears to have led an exemplary life in Turkey,” pointing to more than a hundred letters he received from Atilla’s family and friends in his support.

Rocco agreed that leniency was justified.

“What we need to show the world in proceedings such as this, especially today, especially now, is that we Americans aren’t bullies,” he said.

Cathy Fleming, another of Atilla’s lawyers, read a brief statement by Atilla, translated from Turkish, asking for Berman’s “understanding of the situation that I and my family are in.”

“Apart from my family, I have no other priorities,” the statement said.

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.

Zarrab, who has yet to be sentenced, testified 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.

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.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; editing by Susan Thomas, Frances Kerry and Jonathan Oatis