May 16 (UPI) -- A Turkish banker convicted as part of a conspiracy to violate United States sanctions on Iran was sentenced to 32 months in prison Wednesday.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman issued a statement after the sentencing saying Mehmet Hakan Atilla, who worked as the deputy manager for Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank, helped Iran's government access billions of dollars of assets that had been frozen by U.S. sanctions.
"Mehmet Hakan Atilla helped execute an audacious scheme to circumvent our nation's Iran sanctions regime by engaging in billions of dollars' worth of deceptive transactions," Berman said.
A New York jury convicted Atilla, 47, on five counts of conspiracy and bank fraud in January.
He was one of nine people indicted in the case along with Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was initially the lead defendant before reaching a deal with U.S. authorities to become a star witness against Atilla.
"If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish republic a criminal," Erdogan said.
Prosecutors argued Atilla should be sentenced to about 20 years in prison, saying his crimes impacted national security.
"Atilla's offenses simultaneously opened a multibillion-dollar channel of illicit funding for the government of Iran and relieved crucial financial pressure on Iran during negotiations to limit its nuclear program," a sentencing memo stated.
Seeking a lighter sentence, Atilla's lawyers argued he played a minor role in the scheme compared to the other defendants.
"Mr. Atilla was, at most, a cog in the wheel of the Zarrab scheme," they said.
Judge Richard M. Berman agreed Atilla was a relatively minor contributor to the conspiracy, describing him as a "a reluctant participant," who was merely "following orders."