US court sentences Turkish banker Atilla to 32 months for Iran sanctions evasion

A US Federal judge has sentenced Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla to 32 months in prison, with credit for time already served, according to a tweet from Adam Klasfeld of Klasfeld Reports, who was present in the courtroom for the proceedings.

Atilla, an official at Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank, was convicted by a Manhattan jury in January of conspiring to violate US sanctions on Iran.

Calling Atilla a “model prisoner” and a “cog in the wheel,” Judge Richard Berman said Atilla was “substantially less culpable” than other participants in the sanctions evasion scheme and appeared to have been “a person doing his job, sometimes reluctantly or hesitatingly, under the direction of the Halkbank general manager Mr. Aslan, who did take bribes.”

Announcing at the start of the session that it was an “exceptional sentencing proceeding,” Berman said that in addition to “US citizens following our cases,” there are undoubtedly “large numbers of Turkish citizens also interested.”

After explaining US sentencing guidelines to the international audience, Berman said, “My thinking is not to impose a guidelines sentence in this case, and to impose a sentence that is appropriately lenient.”

US government guidelines call for life in prison, although the prosecution asked for 20 years for Atilla. The defense had suggested 46 to 57 months. Berman’s guidelines are between 97 and 121 months in prison, but he indicated he would be going below that.

“This case presents a rather unique set of circumstances,” Berman said.

The sentencing had earlier been postponed by Judge Berman due to “the number of issues raised by the parties in their (extensive) sentencing submissions.”

Prosecutors had demanded a 20-year sentence for Atilla and also a “substantial fine,” from $50,000 to $500,000, while his lawyers had asked the judge on March 27 to “temper justice with mercy” and sentence him to “significantly below” the four to five years recommended by US sentencing guidelines.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday the US court’s sentencing of Atilla was not legitimate or credible due to “fake evidence” and “incorrect statements” during the trial. The statement came after the judge sentenced Atilla to 32 months in prison with credit for time served.

“By convicting a foreign government official, this court made an unprecedented decision regarding the implementation of the US sanctions legislation,” the statement said, adding that the ruling came after an “entirely feigned process which is inconsistent with the principle of fair trial.”

The ministry accused the US court of taking “forged evidence and statements” allegedly fabricated by supporters of the Gülen movement and said Atilla had been sentenced despite being innocent. “The credibility of the legal proceedings has vanished completely,” it claimed.

Atilla and Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab and seven other people, including Turkey’s former economy minister and two additional Halkbank executives, were charged with engaging in transactions worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran’s government and Iranian entities from 2010 to 2015 in a scheme to evade US sanctions.

Zarrab reached a plea deal with the prosecution and became its star witness in the trial of Atilla, the only defendant other than Zarrab in US custody.

Zarrab testified in early December that he had bribed Turkey’s former economy minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, in the billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of US sanctions on Iran and that then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan personally authorized the involvement of Turkish banks in the scheme although he was not charged in the case.

The jury in Atilla’s trial in US federal court reached a verdict in January of guilty on five counts, including bank fraud and conspiracy, and not guilty on one count of money laundering in a case that portrayed high-level corruption in Turkey and heightened tensions between the US and its NATO ally.

In a Monday interview with Bloomberg TV in London, when pressed on his allegation of an injustice having been committed in the Atilla trial and whether or not Turkey would pay any fines imposed on Halkbank for involvement in the sanctions evasion scheme, Erdoğan said Turkey would have to wait to see how Atilla’s case played out, adding, “If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.”

Meanwhile, a Turkish civil society group has requested an arrest warrant for a former US district attorney whose investigation incriminated Turkish-Iranian gold smuggler Reza Zarrab and Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, on the day Atilla was sentenced by a court in Manhattan.

Preet Bharara, the former US attorney for the Southern District, arrested Zarrab in March 2016 for his involvement in a scheme to break US sanctions on Iran. A year later Atilla was arrested by the then-acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Joon H. Kim.

As Atilla awaited his sentence, the request to issue an arrest warrant for Bharara was sent to a Turkish court by a so-called civil society group set up to combat the influence of followers of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen.

A militant Erdoğanist group, the Civil Society Platform for the Struggle Against the Fethullahist Terrorist Organisation, also requested the arrest of four people allegedly affiliated with the Gülen movement and Michael Rubin, an analyst and former Pentagon official accused by Turkish government circles of links to the Gülen movement.

The Turkish president has suggested that the trial was the work of the Gülen movement, a claim that was taken up by Atilla’s lawyer and then roundly rejected by Judge Berman. (SCF with turkishminute.com)

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