Mehmet Hakan Atilla—the senior banker of Turkey’s state-owned Turkiye Halk Bankasi (Halkbank) convicted of aiding an Iranian plot to evade sanctions and launder $1bn in oil revenue through the US financial system—on May 16 was shown leniency by a New York judge who sentenced him to 32 months in prison.
Federal prosecutors had asked for a sentence of at least 15 years for Atilla, 47, who, taking into account credit for good behaviour and time spent in jail awaiting trial, could return to Turkey by the middle of next year. It is possible US regulators may try to introduce fines against Halkbank in the wake of the conviction.
Observers of the stressed relations between Ankara and Washington will watch for the reaction of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On May 15, Erdogan referred to the strains that the conviction of Atilla and Ankara’s plan to purchase Russia’s S-400 advanced missile defence system were putting on the relationship of the Nato allies. Insisting that Atilla, a deputy CEO who headed international banking at Halkbank, was “not guilty” of taking part in the alleged money laundering scheme, he added that declaring him as such was tantamount to criminalising the Turkish Republic.
After the sentencing of Atilla, 47, by US District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry put out a statement reading: “By sentencing the representative of a foreign country’s state bank, the court in question has made a decision on the application of regulations regarding US sanctions that has no precedent.”
Atilla was found guilty of taking part in a plot led by Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader. Zarrab testified as the prosecutors’ star witness against Atilla. US authorities arrested Zarrab in 2016 while he was on a holiday trip to the US. After turning prosecution witness, he pleaded guilty to fraud, conspiracy and money laundering charges in return for his own lenient sentence.
Victor Rocco, one of Atilla’s lawyers, told news agencies his client would appeal against his conviction, but described the sentence as “fair.”
Berman said before sentencing that the trial evidence showed Atilla was a minor player in the sanctions-dodging scheme, and “at times a reluctant one at that” who was largely following orders from his supervisor, Reuters reported.
Berman added that 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.
Erdogan has said the case was founded on evidence fabricated by followers of US-based self-exilded Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen. The president has blamed Gulen for the failed coup that took place in Turkey in July 2016, but the preacher has strenuosly denied any involvement. During the trial, it was alleged that Erdogan knew about parts of the money laundering scheme, but prosecutors have never pressed charges against him.