By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK, May 16 : A U.S. judge sentenced Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a banker at Turkey’s state-controlled Halkbank , to 32 months in prison on Wednesday after he was found guilty 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.
Victor Rocco, one of Atilla’s lawyers, said his client would appeal his conviction, but called the sentence “fair.” Prosecutors had sought a sentence of about 20 years for Atilla, who worked as a deputy general manager at Halkbank.
Atilla’s lawyers had sought a sentence “dramatically below” the 46- to 57-month term they said was recommended under federal guidelines.
“We appreciate the thought and comprehensiveness of the judge’s sentence,” Rocco said.
There was no immediate response to the sentencing from the Turkish government or Halkbank.
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.
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 U.S. government’s star witness against Atilla.
Zarrab, who has yet to be sentenced, said on the witness stand 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.
Atilla was arrested in New York in March 2017, a year after Zarrab’s arrest in Florida.