The Turkish banker convicted last year of facilitating a multi-billion dollar Iranian sanctions-busting plot was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday by a Manhattan federal judge, disappointing prosecutors who wanted 20 years for a crime they called a national security threat.
In a case that roiled relations with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, the government had made a deal with gold trader Reza Zarrab, the scheme’s mastermind who admitted paying off Turkish ministers, to become a star witness against Hakan Atilla, a manager at state-owned Halkbank.
Prosecutor Michael Lockard told U.S. District Judge Richard Berman that Atilla had played a key role in eroding sanctions designed to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorism, and deserved to pay a heavy price.
“It, in a very real sense, is a case about nuclear capability,” Lockard said. “It is so serious that everyone is a victim of it . . . These are threats that concern everyone.”
But Berman described Atilla, 47, who has been jailed since last March, as a small fish who followed orders from his bosses at the bank and shouldn’t pay the price for the largest criminal sanctions case ever.
“He was not a recipient of nor did he solicit bribes,” the judge said. “In large measure, Atilla seemed to be a person doing his job, sometimes reluctantly . . . It is difficult to see what Mr. Atilla got out of the scheme, apart from the serious predicament he found himself in for the last 14 months.”
The case began in 2016 when Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish celebrity, was unexpectedly arrested at Disney World and charged with helping Iran evade sanctions through elaborate schemes to launder Iranian oil money in complex gold and food deals. Atilla was arrested months later on a trip to the United States.
Zarrab hired a platoon of high-priced lawyers including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to try to work out a deal between Erdogan, who was anxious to avoid the embarrassment of a trial, and the Trump administration. Then, weeks before trial last year, he agreed to cooperate.
In testimony that made a big splash in Turkey, Zarrab said he made $100 million to $150 million from the scheme and detailed corruption implicating Erdogan and his ministers, while Atilla’s lawyers said he was a “pawn” being used to stage a show trial in absentia of Erdogan’s government.
Atilla, in brief comments to the judge Wednesday, asked for leniency. “I ask you to understand the position I and my family are in,” he said.
“Mr. Atilla was neither a chief architect nor a beneficiary of the various schemes,” the judge said. “He seems to have done what he did principally at the direction of his boss.”
Despite the lenient sentence, a lawyer for Atilla said he still plans to appeal his conviction. Zarrab is still awaiting sentencing. In addition to Zarrab and Atilla, seven other Turks have been charged in the scheme but none is in U.S. custody.