Published: Thu, May 17, 2018
People | By Leon Thompson

Mehmet Hakan Atilla gets 32-month sentence in Iran sanctions case

Mehmet Hakan Atilla gets 32-month sentence in Iran sanctions case

A USA judge sentenced a Turkish banker to 32 months in prison over his involvement in a scheme to evade US sanctions against Iran, rejecting the prosecution's demand for a harsher sentence in a case that strained relations between two countries.

But on January 3, Atilla was found guilty by a jury on five counts related to conspiracy and bank fraud but was acquitted of money laundering.

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 USA government's star witness against Atilla.

There was no immediate response to the sentencing from the Turkish government or Halkbank. His conviction followed a four-week trial in which Atilla testified in his own defence.

The case began in 2016 when Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish celebrity, was unexpectedly arrested at Disney World and charged with helping Iran evade sanctions through elaborate schemes to launder Iranian oil money in complex gold and food deals.

Atilla, who worked as a deputy general manager at Halkbank, has already spent 14 months in jail. He simply tried to downplay his role in the fake food scheme and refused to have meetings with US officials. The defense, in contrary, expected between 46 and 57 months.

However, prosecutors on Wednesday noted that the government did not seek a 105-year sentence, or a life sentence for Atilla, adding that it recommended a sentence of about 20 years, some 80 years below guidelines.

"This is the biggest sanctions-evasion case prosecuted in the United States that we're aware of", Lockard said, sounding dispirited by the judge's opening remarks.

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Atilla, in brief comments to the judge Wednesday, asked for leniency.

The judge said there will be no supervised release and Atilla would be able to go back to his country after completing his sentence.

"Mr. Atilla was neither a chief architect nor a beneficiary of the various schemes", the judge said. Then, weeks before trial past year, he agreed to cooperate.

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. Zarrab pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges and testified against Atilla on behalf of the USA government.

Far away from his wife, son and aging parents, Atilla pleaded for a quick return to his family.

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

On the stand, Zarrab implicated both Erdogan in directing sanctions-busting trades and top officials at Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party in accepting millions of dollars in bribes.

A month later, a NY judge turned down a request by Atilla to acquit him of all charges due to lack of evidence, saying there was "sufficient evidence" to support the charges.

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