The deputy CEO of Turkey's Halkbank has been sentenced in New York to 32 months in prison for a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions

New York (AFP) - A Turkish banker was sentenced Wednesday to 32 months in a US prison for plotting to help Iran evade American sanctions on billions of dollars of Iranian oil proceeds, earning swift rebuke from Ankara.

Mehmet Hakan Atilla, 47, deputy director general of Turkish lender Halkbank, was convicted by a New York jury on January 3 on five counts of bank fraud and conspiracy following a five-week trial.

Judge Richard Berman handed down the unusually light sentence of 32 months in a Manhattan court.

US prosecutors had wanted him put away for 20 years. Atilla will be free to return to Turkey after serving his sentence.

The Turkish foreign ministry on Wednesday insisted that Atilla was innocent and condemned his treatment by the US judicial system as an “entirely feigned process, which is inconsistent with the principle of fair trial.”

US prosecutors say the scheme to violate US economic sanctions involved billions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil proceeds held at Atilla’s employer.

The explosive case strained ties between Ankara and Washington with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan railing against the verdict and calling the trial a plot against Turkey.

“A great injustice is being done against Halkbank,” Erdogan told Bloomberg TV in an interview on Monday.

“There is a judicial procedure and the lawyers of Halkbank especially are following this judicial process. I hope it doesn’t yield a result that will completely destroy Turkish-US relations,” he added.

“We want his acquittal… If Hakan Atilla is going to be declared a criminal, that would be almost equivalent to declaring the Turkish Republic a criminal.”

The 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 Erdogan.

Relations between Erdogan and President Donald Trump had already been strained by the war in Syria and US indictment of Turkish presidential bodyguards.

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.