Turkish banker convicted in Iran sanctions-busting scheme

Mehmet Hakan Atilla found guilty of bank fraud, conspiracy, in case which implicated Erdogan and strained US ties with Ankara

Mehmet Hakan Atilla from Halkbank talks about Bonds, Loans and Sukuk in Turkey in 2015. (YouTube screen shot)
Mehmet Hakan Atilla from Halkbank talks about Bonds, Loans and Sukuk in Turkey in 2015. (YouTube screen shot)

NEW YORK — A Turkish banker was convicted in New York on Wednesday in connection with a massive scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions, in a case that strained ties between Ankara and Washington.

A jury found Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy chief executive of Turkish lender Halkbank, guilty of five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy.

The federal trial hinged on the testimony of well-connected Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who became a government witness after admitting his involvement in the multi-billion-dollar gold-for-oil scheme to subvert US economic sanctions against Iran.

This file photo taken on December 17, 2013, shows detained businessman Reza Zarrab (C) surrounded by journalists as he arrives at a police center in Istanbul. (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

His testimony implicated former Turkish ministers and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the scheme, and identified 47-year-old Atilla as a key organizer

Zarrab, a prominent gold trader, agreed to testify after striking a deal to plead guilty to violating US sanctions.

Before the trial, Erdogan reportedly pressed US President Donald Trump to quell the investigation and strongly criticized Washington, calling the case a “plot” aimed at hurting Turkey.

Acting US Attorney Joon Kim said the case was a warning to anyone who would violate US sanctions.

“Foreign banks and bankers have a choice: You can choose willfully to help Iran and other sanctioned nations evade US law, or you can choose to be part of the international banking community transacting in US dollars. But you can’t do both,” Kim said in a statement.

“If you lie repeatedly to US Treasury officials and fabricate documents — all as part of a secret scheme to smuggle billions of dollars in Iranian oil money past the US sanctions net — as Atilla did, then you should be prepared for the consequences.”

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