A Turkish banker was sentenced Wednesday to 32 months in a US prison for plotting to help Iran evade American sanctions, in an explosive case straining ties between Ankara and Washington.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47, deputy chief executive of Turkish lender Halkbank, was convicted by a New York jury on January 3 on five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy. He was acquitted on one count of money laundering.
Judge Richard Berman handed down the sentence of 32 months in a Manhattan court Wednesday. US prosecutors had wanted him put away for 20 years. Atilla will be free to return to Turkey after serving his sentence.
His 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.
His testimony identified Atilla as a key organizer, but also implicated former Turkish ministers and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has railed against the verdict and the trial, calling it a plot against Turkey.
“A great injustice is being done against Halkbank,” Erdogan told Bloomberg TV in an interview on Monday, calling Atilla “definitely innocent.”
“There is a judicial procedure and the lawyers of Halkbank especially are following this judicial process. I hope it doesn’t yield a result that will completely destroy Turkish-US relations,” he added.
“We want his acquittal, because there’s no crime… If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.”
Relations between Erdogan and President Donald Trump have already been damaged by the war in Syria and US prosecution of Turkish presidential bodyguards.
Testifying in court last November, Zarrab said he was told that Erdogan, as prime minister in 2012, and treasury minister Ali Babacan had given “instructions” to two public banks to take part in the scheme.
Erdogan has repeatedly rejected the allegations, saying Turkey did not violate the US embargo on Iran and that political rivals were behind the case.