AP — 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 U.S. economic sanctions.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman ordered Mehmet Hakan Atilla to spend 32 months in prison, including 14 months he has already served after his arrest last year during a business trip to New York on behalf of his employer, Turkey’s state-run Halkbank. The sentence means Atilla can return to Turkey in about a year.
The trial, which ended in January, had featured testimony about corruption at the highest levels of the Turkish government. A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Atilla’s conviction on five charges a “scandalous verdict.”

In the decades after the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 Americans were held captive from 1979 to 1981, the United States imposed increasingly stiffer sanctions prohibiting virtually all U.S. financial dealings with oil-rich Iran, including many bank transactions.

Prosecutors maintained that Atilla used his position as Halkbank’s deputy general manager for international banking to help build and protect a scheme that enabled billions of dollars in profits from Iranian oil sales to flow through world financial markets since 2011.

“This is the biggest sanction evasion prosecution in the United States that we’re aware of,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard.

Lockard said the sanctions-busting scheme was “monumental in scope and momentous in timing” given the negotiations aimed at curtailing the nuclear aims of a state sponsor of terrorism and preventing a Middle East nuclear arms race.

“It is so serious that everybody is a victim of it,” the prosecutor said.

But the judge decided on a dramatically shorter prison term than the life sentence recommended by U.S. probation authorities and the 20 years urged by prosecutors.

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