WASHINGTON — A federal judge Wednesday approved a $298 million legal settlement that allows Barclays Bank PLC to avoid prosecution on charges that it violated U.S. economic sanctions, despite voicing concerns that the agreement is too lenient.

In approving the settlement, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said it wasn't his job to micromanage how the U.S. Justice Department handles a prosecution.

On Tuesday, Sullivan had described the settlement as "a sweetheart deal."

The judge offered more criticism during Wednesday's court hearing, saying the public would look at the settlement and question whether Barclays was getting "a free ride."

Sullivan said the public had little faith in how white-collar criminal cases are treated and added, "It's proceedings like these that raise concerns in the public's mind about fairness and justice."

Justice Department lawyers said during Wednesday's court hearing that the settlement was an appropriate resolution to the case because Barclays voluntarily disclosed its conduct and cooperated extensively with U.S. investigators.

"You don't believe the government has put on the kid gloves here?" Sullivan asked.

"I absolutely do not," Justice Department lawyer Kevin Gerrity responded.

Gerrity said the charges against Barclays were very serious, but he described the bank as "extremely cooperative" and said senior management spent $250 million to conduct an internal investigation once it became aware of the violations.

Sullivan also questioned why no individual bank employees were being charged in the case.

Gerrity said the Justice Department didn't have enough evidence against any individual to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The U.S. government filed criminal charges Monday alleging that Barclays over an 11-year period facilitated and hid transactions for banks and other entities in countries facing U.S. economic and trade sanctions, including Iran and Cuba.

Barclays General Counsel Mark Harding acknowledged Wednesday in court the truthfulness of the government's charges, while another lawyer for the bank, David Braff, said Barclays' conduct "developed at the lower levels of the bank."

Braff said senior management moved swiftly to address the bank's practices once it became aware of them.

Braff said the bank had been able to track the lower-level people who processed individual transactions on behalf of banks and other entities facing U.S. sanctions, but said that identification of those employees didn't mean that they acted with criminal intent.

In addition to forfeiting the $298 million, Barclays will enter into a two-year deferred-prosecution agreement, which will allow it to avoid prosecution if it complies with a list of requirements, including continued cooperation with government investigators and the implementation of new training and compliance programs.

Judge Sullivan said he plans to hold status hearings every three months to oversee Barclays's compliance with the settlement.

Barclays is the fourth bank to face similar sanctions-related charges since January 2009.

Similar deferred-prosecution agreements between the U.S. government and Credit Suisse Group, Lloyds Banking Group PLC and the former ABN Amro Holding NV over processing payments from sanctioned countries were approved by federal courts.

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