Turkish Banker Cast as Bit Player in Epic Sanctions Case

Mehmet Atilla, right, testifies on Dec. 15, 2017, during his trial on corruption charges in New York. The Turkish banker accused of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions has been convicted by a jury in New York after a trial that sowed distrust between the two nations. Atilla was convicted of five counts, including conspiracy. He was acquitted of one money-laundering charge. (Elizabeth Williams via AP, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Call him “The Banker of Ankara.”

Recalling Portia’s plea for Shylock to season justice with mercy in “The Merchant of Venice,” attorneys have asked a federal judge for leniency in sentencing the Turk who flouted sanctions against Iran through a series of multibillion-dollar bank trades.

Hakan Atilla faces decades in prison for fraud, conspiracy and violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, but defense attorneys Victor Rocco and Cathy Fleming requested a significant reduction in a 64-page brief filed Monday night just before midnight.

Citing Shakespeare, but ultimately quoting John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the brief invites the court to “temper justice with mercy.” Rocco and Fleming put their guidelines estimate for Atilla at between four to five years in prison, and say that Atilla’s poor health and modest means require an even further reduction.

The argument hinges on characterizing 47-year-old Atilla as a pawn who unwittingly found himself at the focus of a geopolitical drama.

At trial last year, the prosecution’s star witness was gold trader Reza Zarrab, a wealthy and famous businessman who implicated Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, high-ranking ministers and powerful bankers in violating U.S. law.

Though Zarrab traded cooperation for expected leniency, Rocco and Fleming note that the witness benefitted far more greatly from the plot than did Atilla.

“Unlike cases focusing upon the leader of a complex criminal scheme, the evidence at trial showed that Hakan was, at most, a functionary in someone else’s mammoth plot to circumvent American economic sanctions aimed at Iran – a plot that was motivated by the greed of its mastermind, architect and principal beneficiary Reza Zarrab, as well as others, who, along with Zarrab, realized huge financial gains,” they wrote.

The brief also claims that Atilla’s case represents “the first time ever that an individual banker – and a foreigner at that with no connection to the United States or a U.S. bank” has been prosecuted for violating U.S. sanctions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

“At bottom, although U.S. banks were involved, the crimes covered by the verdict in this case are not economic crimes; they involve U.S. foreign policy and are anchored in the sometimes-controversial U.S. sanctions regime against Iran that was rolled back as part of the equally-controversial 2015 nuclear arms treaty with Iran,” the brief argues.

Prosecutors have not yet released their own sentencing memorandum and will likely argue for a much longer term of incarceration.

Far away from his wife and son, the 47-year-old Atilla has been an inmate of New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center for roughly a year. Atilla’s brief shields most information about his medical condition but reveals that the banker is a diabetic who has “suffered physically and emotionally” behind bars.

More than 100 of Atilla’s family members and friends sent letters urging U.S. District Judge Richard Berman to send him home quickly.

Atilla’s case is closely watched in his home country, where his former boss Suleyman Aslan remains under indictment along with high-ranking Turkish politicians like Turkey’s former minister of the economy Zafer Caglayan.

The New York case captivated many in Turkey because of its connection to a 2013 corruption scandal, when Istanbul prosecutors charged many of then-Prime Minister Erdogan’s allies with bribery.

Though Erdogan would ultimate quash the investigation by jailing several detectives and prosecutors, blasting the probe as a “judicial coup,” the allegations somewhat improbably migrated to a New York courtroom.

There Zarrab testified that Caglayan accepted bribes of between “45 and 50 million” euros, and prosecutors showed jurors other large bribe payments stacked in shoeboxes and discussed during wiretapped phone calls.

But the defense’s brief Monday notes that Atilla did not take a penny in bribes. “Moreover, the evidence at trial conclusively confirmed that Hakan did not receive monetary gain from the conduct that formed the basis of his conviction,” it states.

Turkish government officials have closely watched Atilla’s case, filing charges against the family and friends of witnesses who testified against the banker.

Before agreeing to cooperate with the U.S. government, Zarrab had his erstwhile Turkish allies advocate on his behalf in diplomatic negotiations in Washington and Ankara. The Turkish government unsuccessfully lobbied former Vice President Joe Biden and ex-Attorney General Loretta Lynch for Zarrab’s release. Zarrab later recruited President Donald Trump’s top allies like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to act as his attorneys in negotiations in a failed prisoner exchange plan between Turkey and the United States.

The Turkish government’s campaign to free Atilla appeared much more modest.

“Ultimately, the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., sent a diplomatic note regarding Mr. Atilla to the U.S. Department of State,” Rocco disclosed in a letter. “While the Turkish diplomatic note related to Mr. Atilla’s prosecution, it did not include a formal request that Mr. Atilla be afforded common law immunity as a foreign official.”

The Turkish consul general sent that note on Atilla’s to the U.S. Department of State on Sept. 28, 2017, shortly before Zarrab’s guilty plea.

The government’s sentencing memo will likely argue that Atilla was no bystander in the scheme, but the man who devised the system that others put into motion.

At trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard told the jury: “Mr. Atilla was the lead person in that relationship.”

With Atilla’s sentencing looming on April 11, the government will reveal what prison term prosecutors will seek in roughly a week.

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