Bygone US Sentence of Turkish Banker Hakan Atilla Affirmed

Taken from federal surveillance footage, this still image shows U.S. authorities frisking Mehmet Hakan Atilla after his arrest on March 27, 2017. A former manager at the Turkish state-run bank Halkbank, Atilla is being tried in New York over transactions that flouted sanctions against Iran.

MANHATTAN (CN) — Almost a year to the day that Halkbank manager Hakan Atilla completed his 36-month sentence, a U.S. appeals court affirmed the Turkish banker’s convictions for facilitating record-breaking violations of anti-Iran sanctions.

“The evidence at trial established that Atilla agreed with others to evade U.S. economic sanctions against Iran by laundering billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil proceeds out of Halkbank,” a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit wrote Monday, calling the evidence of Atilla’s guilt “overwhelming.”

For Atilla, the court’s ruling will make little practical difference. The Turkish banker finished his roughly 2.5-year sentence on July 19, 2019. Atilla returned to a hero’s welcome in Turkey, where the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced a new job for the banker heading Istanbul’s main stock exchange.

The main significance of today’s ruling falls for Atilla’s former employer: Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, which was indicted last year as the hub of a multibillion-dollar money-laundering scheme.

As Halkbank prepares for trial next year, today’s decision stands as a rebuke to the Turkish government’s claim that Atilla was wrongly accused and convicted.

“We conclude that sufficient evidence existed to support the jury’s verdict,” U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Sullivan, a Trump appointee, wrote for the three-judge panel. “The evidence — which included wiretapped conversations, witness testimony (including that of a cooperating witness and high-ranking U.S. government officials personally involved in the events described at trial), and hundreds of documentary exhibits — establishes 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.”

U.S. Circuit Judges Peter Hall, who was appointed by George W. Bush, and Rosemary Pooler, a Clinton appointee, joined the decision.

Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton has accused the president of trying to undermine the case against Halkbank as a favor to Erdoğan, one of the “dictators he liked.”

The Halkbank case traces its origins to that of gold trader Reza Zarrab, who spearheaded the global money-laundering scheme and implicated Erdoğan in sanctions-busting trades from a New York witness stand in 2017.

Before pleading guilty, Zarrab retained Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to try to arrange a prisoner swap with Erdoğan that could have scuttled the case. The New York Times reported that Trump met with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the Oval Office in an effort to spring Zarrab from federal prison. 

Now, Trump’s own judicial appointee is the lead author of a ruling likely to infuriate Erdoğan, a decision upholding the legitimacy of a case he has long sought to discredit.

In rejecting a standard that one can be criminally liable for conspiring to evade or avoid “secondary sanctions,” the Second Circuit’s ruling contains a smaller finding that could serve as a boon for Halkbank. Secondary sanctions are restrictions on accessing the U.S. financial system imposed on foreigners whom the secretary of the Treasury determines have done business with Iran.

The court found a jury instruction based on that standard “harmless” because Atilla also had been found guilty under a more exacting standard.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who has presided over all of the Halkbank cases, has set a trial date against the Turkish state-run bank for March 2021. He rejected an effort to further delay the case for another year. 

Senate Democrats, led by the Finance Committee’s ranking member Ron Wyden, continue to investigate the Trump administration’s interference in the Halkbank saga.

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