Turkish Banker's Jail Term May Hinge on Answers to U.S. Judge

(Bloomberg) -- A U.S. judge demanded more information about Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla and his role in a scheme to help Iran evade U.S. sanctions on billions of dollars in oil revenue before deciding deciding the sentence for his crimes.

In an order filed Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman asked prosecutors whether the sanctions Atilla was found guilty of helping to evade are still in effect, and for the identity of the "chief beneficiaries" of the scheme. He also pressed defense lawyers for details about Atilla’s previous visits to the U.S., his Turkish consul, and a letter sent to U.S. State Department on Atilla’s behalf.

Atilla, who is scheduled to be sentenced on May 7, was convicted in January on five charges including conspiracy to commit money laundering and sanctions evasion that carry severe penalties. He was acquitted of a single count of money laundering.

Prosecutors are asking Berman to sentence Atilla, who headed international banking at Turkish state-owned Turkiye Halk Bankasi AS, to more than 15 years for his participation in the conspiracy, which was orchestrated by Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab. The standard sentencing guideline for his conviction would be 105 years, prosecutors said, but they suggested an alternative calculation that would result in a term of 15 to 20 years, noting that range has been imposed in similar cases.

Defense lawyers have argued that Atilla should receive leniency because he was only a peripheral figure in the scheme and didn’t benefit from the crimes. They wrote in a March 26 court filing that his case is "unique" because it "represents the first time an individual banker -- and a foreigner at that with no connection to the U.S. or a U.S. bank -- has been prosecuted for a violation" of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Most sanction cases against banks have involved deferred-prosecution agreements, and the sanctions at issue were rolled back in 2015, they said. Evidence showed that Atilla "was, at most, a functionary in someone else’s mammoth plot" which was "motivated by the greed of its mastermind, architect, and principal beneficiary, Reza Zarrab, as well others, who along with Zarrab, realized huge financial gains," the defense lawyers said.

Zarrab pleaded guilty on the eve of trial and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution, becoming the government’s chief witness. That left Atilla as the sole defendant to stand trial out of nine people charged, including other Halkbank executives and Turkish government officials, who remained abroad and out of reach of U.S. authorities.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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