In a case that strained relations between the United States and Turkey, a judge sentenced a Turkish banker on Wednesday to just over two and a half years in prison, ignoring recommendations that he spend decades behind bars for his role in helping Iran evade US economic sanctions.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47, deputy chief executive of Turkish lender Halkbank, was convicted by a NY jury on January 3 on five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Monday blasted the US government for prosecuting Atilla, calling the case "a great injustice" and claiming the USA case was based on evidence fabricated by followers Fetullah Gulen, a USA -based Muslin cleric who has also been blamed for the failed 2016 Turkish coup attempt.
The Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade USA sanctions has been convicted by a jury in NY after a trial that sowed distrust between the two nations. His conviction followed a four-week trial in which Atilla testified in his own defense. A jury convicted Atilla of five counts, including conspiracy, but acquitted him of one money-laundering charge.
The case has strained already tense relations between Turkey and the U.S. Erdogan told Bloomberg that "if Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be nearly equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal".
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.
Atilla, who worked as a deputy general manager at Halkbank, has already spent 14 months in jail.
Berman's comments appeared to stun Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard, who had sought a more than 15-year sentence.
Aware of the implications of the ruling for the national security and bilateral relations, the judge said the USA government's position is the deterrence to keep other banks from violating sanctions.
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"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.
Watched intensely from NY to Istanbul, the proceedings ended with a likewise extraordinary 32-month sentence, a prison term lower than what prosecutors or even defense attorneys requested.
The judge said there will be no supervised release and Atilla would be able to go back to his country after completing his sentence. Then, weeks before trial previous year, he agreed to cooperate.
Zarrab, who has yet to be sentenced, testified 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.
Judge Berman rejected the prosecution's portrayal of Atilla as the "architect of the scheme".
The wealthy Zarrab, arrested a year before Atilla, initially attracted considerable attention to the case.
"Apart from my family, I have no other priorities", the statement said.
"If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be nearly equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal", Erdogan said.