Turkish banker released from US prison

New York (AFP) –


A Turkish banker convicted for plotting to help Iran evade American sanctions on Iranian oil proceeds has been released from US prison, according to his lawyer and prison officials.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47, deputy director general of Turkish lender Halkbank, was arrested in March 2017 and convicted the following year on five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy following a five-week trial in New York.

He was handed over to immigration police on Friday pending his deportation to Turkey, his lawyer Victor Rocco told AFP. Prison authorities confirmed his release.

Atilla claimed that he had only played a minor role in the scheme and acted as executor of instructions by the bank's director general -- an argument accepted by the court.

Prosecutors had wanted a 20-year sentence for the banker.

His conviction hinged on the testimony of Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was arrested by US authorities in 2016 after jetting to Florida with his pop-star wife and child on a family holiday to Disney World.

Zarrab, 34, initially pleaded not guilty then flipped, becoming a US government witness after admitting being involved in the multi-billion-dollar gold-for-oil scheme to subvert US economic sanctions against Iran.

His testimony identified Atilla as a key organizer in the scheme, but also implicated former Turkish ministers and even President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Testifying in court last November, Zarrab said he was told that Erdogan, as prime minister in 2012, and treasury minister Ali Babacan gave "instructions" to two public banks to take part in the scheme.

Erdogan has repeatedly rejected the allegations, saying Turkey did not violate the US embargo on Iran and that political rivals were behind the case.

Zarrab's sentence is not known, as many of the documents in his case have remained confidential.