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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for a Turkish banker convicted of helping Iran evade U.S. sanctions told a Manhattan federal judge on Friday it would be unfair to subject their client to a long prison stay, given the "leniency" afforded many large banks and their employees for similar conduct.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan, lawyers for Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former deputy general manager at Turkey's state-controlled Halkbank, said "notions of comity" weighed against a stiff punishment at his May 7 sentencing.

U.S. prosecutors accused Atilla, 47, a Turkish citizen, of conspiring with wealthy gold trader Reza Zarrab and others in using fraudulent gold and food transactions to help Iran evade sanctions.

They have said a roughly 20-year prison term for Atilla would be appropriate.

"Despite the involvement of numerous large international banks in past large-scale sanctions violations no banker other than Mr. Atilla has ever been charged for such conduct, much less sent to prison," Atilla's lawyers said in the latter.

Berman, they added, "can prevent further disparity in Mr. Atilla's treatment" by taking into account the leniency afforded those banks and their employees, both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens, who violated sanctions.

Zarrab has pleaded guilty and testified against Atilla for several days as the U.S. government's star witness.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has denounced the case, calling it a politically motivated attack on his government.

The letter from Atilla's lawyers came in response to a request by Berman that they and prosecutors answer several questions about the case.

Asked who were the "chief financial beneficiaries" of the sanctions evasion scheme, prosecutors said, "First and foremost, the scheme benefited the Iranian government entities whose access to oil revenue and to the U.S. financial system was restricted under the sanctions laws."

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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Reuters