NEW YORK — 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.
Berman said the lengthier prison terms recommended would be "inappropriate, unreasonable and unfair."
"Mr. Atilla was, as the defense suggests, somewhat of a cog in the wheel, and I would add, a somewhat reluctant one," Berman said during a three-hour court proceeding that mostly featured the judge explaining how he chose the sentence.
At one point, an emotional defendant wiped his face with tissues as the judge read excerpts from 101 letters written by friends, family and work associates of Atilla describing the 47-year-old husband and father as a compassionate and religious man who frequently helped others.
The judge said Atilla falsely testified at his trial on some matters but was unlikely to commit any new crimes, earned no profits directly from the fraud and had a role in the multi-year scheme that was less than many others. Those included Turkish government officials and Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who pleaded guilty and testified against Atilla.
The wealthy Zarrab, arrested a year before Atilla, initially attracted considerable attention to the case. He is 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 after he initially encountered resistance from a Halkbank executive who feared he was "too popular" to carry out trades involving Iranian money without drawing attention to them. Zarrab awaits sentencing.
Judge Berman noted the feverish pitch of some observers of Atilla's trial, particularly in Turkey, when he promised to make a transcript of the sentencing available to the public later Wednesday.