US slaps 10-year trading ban on Turkish banker convicted of helping Iran evade sanctions

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Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a Turkish banker previously imprisoned in the United States for his role in a scheme to evade the US sanctions on Iran, has been slapped with a ban on his export privileges for a period of 10 years from the date of his conviction in May 2018.

“Atilla … may not, directly or indirectly, participate in any way in any transaction involving any commodity, software or technology exported or to be exported from the United States that is subject to the Regulations,” the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) said in a notice on Wednesday.

According to BIS, Atilla can within the next 45 days file an appeal of the ban, which will remain in effect until May 16, 2028.

A former vice president of Turkish state lender Halkbank, Atilla was arrested by the FBI in New York during a business trip in March 2017. He was convicted for his role in the violation of US sanctions on Iran in January 2018, after another defendant, wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, accepted a plea deal and testified against him. Atilla was sentenced to 32 months in prison in May 2018.

After serving his sentence — part of it time served prior to conviction and early release for good behavior — in July 2019 Atilla returned to Turkey, where he was welcomed as a hero by the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Three months later, he was appointed head of Turkey’s Borsa İstanbul Stock Exchange by then-Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdoğan’s son-in-law.

Atilla resigned from his position in March, prior to an approaching New York trial of Halkbank, which faces a fine of up to $20 billion for facilitating transactions that helped Iranian officials circumvent US sanctions in 2012 and 2013 for the nation’s nuclear program.

Some observers suggested that Atilla, who had turned from hero into unwanted burden within a year and a half, after the change in administration in Washington, might have been compelled by Erdoğan to step down as a gesture to the Biden administration in order to restore strained US-Turkey relations before the Halkbank trial.

Former National Security Adviser John Bolton claimed in his memoir titled “The Room Where It Happened” that former US President Donald Trump attempted to intervene in the Halkbank case after Erdoğan gave him a memo from the law firm representing Halkbank during a meeting in Argentina in 2018, insisting that the bank was innocent of the charges against it.

“Trump then told Erdogan he would take care of things, explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people but were Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” Bolton said in the book.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said at the time that Bolton’s book provided “damning evidence” corroborating the findings of his own investigation that “Donald Trump attempted to interfere in a criminal investigation into the largest sanctions violations scheme in US history as a favor” to Erdoğan.

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