US Supreme Court rejects immunity for Turkish bank in Iran sanctions case

Halkbank faces charges over alleged scheme to launder billions of dollars worth of Iranian oil and natural gas

The logo of the Turkish Halkbank in Istanbul. (AFP/Ozan Kose)
The logo of the Turkish Halkbank in Istanbul. (AFP/Ozan Kose)

WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court rejected Wednesday the claim of sovereign immunity by a Turkish bank accused of violating Iran sanctions, in a case that has added tensions to ties between Washington and Ankara.

Halkbank was hit with US criminal charges in 2019 that it took part in a yearlong scheme to launder billions of dollars worth of Iranian oil and natural gas proceeds, violating sanctions on Iran.

The funds were used to buy gold and the transactions were disguised as food and medicine purchases in order to fall under a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions, according to court documents.

As part of the scheme, Halkbank allegedly used front companies to funnel $20 billion to Iran, including $1 billion through the US financial system, the US Justice Department said.

The United States charged the bank with six counts of fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses, calling it one of the most serious sanctions-breaking cases it has seen.

Halkbank claimed that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which protects foreign leaders and governments from lawsuits in the United States, extends to state-owned businesses.

But the US Supreme Court said that the act focuses on civil actions and does not provide immunity from criminal acts.

“The act says not a word about criminal proceedings against foreign states or their instrumentalities,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in the ruling.

An American flag waves in front of the US Supreme Court building, Monday, June 27, 2022, in Washington. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

The case has come at a particularly testy time for relations between the United States and Turkey, a NATO ally that nevertheless frequently tests Western views, including on defense and Middle Eastern politics.

Turkey’s cooperation with the United States and NATO over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also been crucial.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly rejected the allegations facing Halkbank, insisting that Turkey did not violate the US embargo on Iran.

He blamed his political rivals for fomenting the case.

Multiple individuals have already been found guilty in the case, including Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy director general of the bank, who was convicted in 2018.

Atilla was jailed for a year and then released in 2019, and was greeted as a hero upon his return to Turkey.

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