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Turkish banker sentenced to 32 months in US prison for evading sanctions

Prosecution of Mehmet Hakan Atilla has further strained relations between the US and Turkey
Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank is charged with taking part in scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions (AFP)

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 US sanctions.

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

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

Atilla's conviction hinged on the testimony of Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was arrested by US authorities in 2016 after jetting to Florida with his pop-star wife and child on a family holiday to Disney World.

Zarrab, 34, initially pleaded not guilty then flipped, becoming a US government witness after admitting being involved in the multi-billion-dollar gold-for-oil scheme to subvert US economic sanctions against Iran.

Sanctions buster Reza Zarrab goes from ‘hero’ to ‘crook’ in Turkey
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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 towards his sentence, and he could be freed early for good behaviour.

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

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of about 20 years for Atilla.

However, Judge Berman said before imposing his sentence that the evidence presented 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 her client, 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.

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

- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Atilla was found guilty on 3 January of conspiring to violate US sanctions law. His conviction followed a four-week trial in which Atilla testified in his own defence.

Prosecutors have said that in early 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 US 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 that the US case was based on evidence fabricated by followers of US-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 on Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

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

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