US court upholds Turkish banker’s conviction in Iran case

NEW YORK (AP) — A Turkish banker was properly convicted of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions in a case that strained relations with Turkey, a federal appeals panel said Monday.

The ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan concluded that Mehmet Hakan Atilla received a fair trial after he was arrested in 2017 during a business trip to the United States.

A three-judge panel said there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s guilty verdict, including wiretapped conversations and hundreds of documents establishing that “Atilla was a knowing participant in the sanctions evasion scheme that involved routing hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system.”

Atilla’s arrest and prosecution drew an outcry from high-level Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called Atilla’s conviction on five charges a “scandalous verdict.”

The prosecution attracted new attention recently with the publication of a book by John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser.

In the book, Bolton claims that Trump assured Erdogan in 2018 that he would “take care of things” regarding a probe of a Turkish firm believed to be Turkey’s state-run Halkbank. The bank has since been criminally charged and pleaded not guilty to evading U.S. sanctions. A March 2021 trial date has been set.

Atilla was an executive at Halkbank when he was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. The sentence was far below the life term recommended by U.S. probation authorities and the 20 years urged by prosecutors.

He has since returned to Turkey. A message was left Monday seeking comment from his Washington-based attorney.

The trial of Atilla featured testimony by wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors. Zarrab’s arrest a year before Atilla initially attracted considerable attention to the case because he was married to Turkish pop star and TV personality Ebru Gundes.

Zarrab testified that he paid over $50 million in bribes to Turkey’s finance minister to help the sanctions-busting scheme flourish.

For a time, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Michael B. Mukasey, a former attorney general in President George W. Bush’s administration, attempted to negotiate a resolution to the case with Erdogan and Trump administration officials. The talks in 2017 failed to produce a deal.

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