American media has likened the caustic questioning of Hüseyin Korkmaz, the former deputy head of the İstanbul Police Financial Crime Department, by a defense attorney about accusations tying him to the Gülen movement to the McCarthism while Turkish government has requested him repatriated from the US.
Turkey’s justice minister has told his US counterpart that Korkmaz who testified at the trial of a Turkish banker in New York this week is wanted by Ankara and should be swiftly returned, ministry sources said on Friday, according to a report by Reuters.
“It has been requested by our judicial offices that (Korkmaz) be temporarily arrested with the aim of being repatriated, based on alleged crimes,” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gül said in a letter to US Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions, according to the sources at his ministry. “We expect that the request is met on positive terms and the previously mentioned person be repatriated as soon as possible.”
“I want to point out that a fugitive, a terror suspect facing serious allegations, taking part in this case in your country as a witness is big enough a scandal,” Gül said, adding that the case could cause irreparable damage to relations if action was not taken.
Korkmaz told the trial at Manhattan federal court this week that he feared he would be tortured if he returned to Turkey, where he led an investigation involving Turkish officials and Mehmet Hakan Atilla, the bank executive on trial in New York.
Meanwhile, the Courthhouse News Service has reported on Thursday that turning the tables on Thursday, a US prosecutor suggested suspicions about that officer’s political affiliations amount to a political witch-hunt. “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Gülen organization?” Assistant US Attorney Michael Lockard asked Turkish exile Korkmaz on Thursday.
The civic Gülen movement, sometimes known as “Hizmet,” or “the Cemaat,” refers to followers of US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen. Turkish autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has labeled the movement with a derogatory acronym “FETÖ.”
“No, never,” Korkmaz replied.
“The question and answer, perhaps unnoticed by many observers in Turkey, carried unmistakable echoes to the disgraced late Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who ruined countless lives in his Cold War chase for phantom foreign agents of Communism,” wrote the news outlet.
The report continued that “Now a key witness for the US government, Korkmaz has been testifying against banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a manager at Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, but he has made damaging accusations against several top Turkish officials along the way. Korkmaz, whose surname means “fearless” in Turkish, has implicated Erdoğan and several of his former ministers – including ex-economy minister Zafer Çağlayan, former interior minister Muammer Güler, and former EU affair minister Egemen Bagış – in corruption and illegality.”
“During this time period, I was involved in this investigation, and I had all the findings of the investigation that showed the moneys that were going to Bilal Erdoğan (President Erdoğan’s son) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and all these things were in the investigation,” Korkmaz said and added that “While the investigation was underway, and I had the evidence against the ministers as well as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself, there was the plea from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to (Fethullah) Gülen himself saying we missed you so much, you’re in the United States, come back. That’s what he was doing while I had the evidence in the investigation showing what they were doing.”
The news outlet wrote that “As Korkmaz’s probe heated up, so did whispers that the officer secretly served the Gülen movement, which Erdoğan has blamed for repeated coup attempts, including one in 2016.”
These accusations landed Korkmaz in a Turkish prison before the government pressure drove him to flee Turkey through three different countries, where he carted off to the United States the evidence he smuggled out of his homeland in an encrypted flash drive. “I was destroying the CDs after I would copy the information onto my flash drive and onto my hard disk anyway,” Korkmaz said, referring to the Istanbul police department’s disk that he feared would have been destroyed. “And this flash drive and the hard disk of mine were both password-protected,” he added.
The Turkish government claims that Korkmaz did that to serve Gülen movement, but Korkmaz insists he did that to serve justice. “As I was graduating from the police academy, I took an oath for justice, and I did not agree with the possibility that this evidence may be destroyed one day while I had the opportunity to be able to preserve them,” Korkmaz reportedly said.
Korkmaz eventually spent more than a year in a Turkish prison on charges of participation in a coup, affiliation with a terrorist group and abuse of power. To Atilla’s attorney Todd Harrison, from the firm Manhattan-based firm of McDermott, Will & Emery, Korkmaz’s incarceration ended under suspicious circumstances.
Harrison claimed Gülen himself wrote a letter to a Turkish judge asking for his release. Seemingly puzzled by the allegation, Korkmaz said: “This is a ridiculous thing that I had heard about the first time here today from you.” Turkish journalists confirmed that the so-called letter was a fake and fabricated piece of paper because neither date are fact, nor content and style of the text seems to be belong to Fethullah Gülen.
Korkmaz told the attorney that it was not Gülen whom he served, but rather the ideals of Turkey’s founder.“Throughout my education, on the cover of every textbook that I read, I read something that is the address that was given from Atatürk to the Turkish youth, and what I was supposed to do was taught to me through these trainings,” he said. “And just because a corruption investigation was touching on some politicians, I could not look away from it, and I knew, of course, that this was a crime, but I still went ahead with it.”
Turkish national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president and staunch secularist, delivered the famous speech that Korkmaz referred to in the concluding remarks of an address to his parliament on Oct. 20, 1927.
That speech warned the Turkish youth to protect their democracy against its enemies. “If one day you are compelled to defend your independence and the republic, you shall not reflect on the conditions and possibilities of the situation in which you find yourself, in order to accomplish your mission,” Atatürk said, according to one translation.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, Halkbank’s former executive, began testifying Friday, a risky strategy that opens him up to hostile cross-examination by prosecutors. He began his testimony by declaring that he did not work with Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader, to dodge US sanctions.
“Did you conspire with Reza Zarrab to evade sanctions?” his lawyer, Cathy Fleming, asked at the start of Atilla’s testimony.
“Never,” Atilla replied, according to a report by Bloomberg on Friday.
The US case, which began on Nov. 28, has covered a wide range of subjects, educating jurors on Turkish politics, Iranian money laundering and bribery inside US jails. At times, however, the case has appeared to lose track of Atilla, who has emerged as a marginal figure in a scheme to help Iran evade US-imposed sanctions and spend billions of dollars in oil revenue.
US District Judge Richard Berman in Manhattan has repeatedly expressed frustration with both sides over the focus of testimony, including one exchange Wednesday, out of earshot of the jury and spectators, about the cross-examination of a former Turkish police officer who testified for the government.
“How about this for a novelty, how about asking him what he knows about Mr. Atilla? How about that?” Berman asked, according to a court transcript.
Prosecutors claim Atilla conspired with Zarrab in a scheme to launder Iranian oil profits through fraudulent sales of gold and food into Iran. Zarrab, who pleaded guilty and admitted paying tens of millions in bribes to Turkish officials, agreed to cooperate with US prosecutors in hopes of leniency when he’s sentenced.
However, according to a report by NBC News the defence of Atilla threw into question a key piece of prosecution evidence intended to show that a Turkish banker was intimately involved in a scheme to launder Iranian money. Taking the stand in his own defence, Atilla testified Friday that he was on a plane to Barcelona — with no phone service — on the afternoon of April 10, 2013.
The date is significant because the government’s star witness, Reza Zarrab, previously testified that he witnessed the head of Halkbank call Atilla and order him to process an illegal transaction. Defense attorney Cathy Fleming asked Atilla where he was at the time the call was supposedly made.
“I was on a plane,” he said.
“Did you receive a call on your cellphone?” Fleming asked.
“Never,” Atilla replied.
His testimony was bolstered by documents from Turkish Airlines (THY) showing that he and his family were on the flight, not equipped with phones, at the same time surveillance photos show Zarrab at Halkbank for a meeting with the general manager.
Separately, Atilla said, a wiretap of a call purportedly between him and Zarrab was actually between the gold trader and another banker with the same first name, Hakan Aydoğan.
“Did you ever conspire with Reza Zarrab to evade sanctions? Fleming asked Atilla, who was arrested on a business trip to the United States.
“Never,” he said.
Zarrab spent seven days on the stand telling jurors how he orchestrated the plot. He explained how he used a web of shell companies, phony documents, and couriers carrying suitcases full of gold bars. He also described shadowy meetings with Iranian oil officials and Halkbank executives, including then-Chief Executive Süleyman Aslan. Occasionally Zarrab offered testimony directly implicating Atilla, who sat silently flanked by his lawyers in Berman’s lower-Manhattan courtroom. Atilla’s lawyers claim the two men never met.
Zarrab told jurors of Atilla’s part in the plot and testified about a text message in which Aslan asked: “Do you have a problem with the method proposed by Hakan Atilla?” No, Zarrab replied. “That is absolutely a very correct method.”
In a wiretapped telephone conversation, Atilla and Zarrab discussed the problem of recording phony food shipments on vessels that would have been much too small to carry them. Prosecutors say that shows Atilla’s awareness of the fraud. Zarrab also claimed Atilla was present at a meeting in which they discussed methods to hide the scheme.
Atilla was one of nine people charged in the US case. All but Atilla and Zarrab have avoided falling into the hands of US law enforcement. And with Zarrab’s guilty plea shortly before he and Atilla were to begin trial, Atilla is the sole defendant. He’s charged with six criminal counts, including conspiracy and money laundering. The most serious charge, bank fraud, carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
Korkmaz said that Atilla was among the Halkbank executives who were under investigation in the Turkish case. Atilla wasn’t charged in Turkey. However, Much of Korkmaz’s testimony was focused on how the Turkish criminal investigation was suppressed, with little mention of Atilla. His lawyers complained that Korkmaz testified about the Turkish investigation in ways they say violated US trial rules and unfairly prejudiced the jury against their client.
Lawyers for Atilla told the judge they plan to present three or four witnesses in addition to their client. Jurors may begin deliberations late next week.
Atilla’s lawyers previously moved for a mistrial because they contend the blockbuster evidence against Turkish leaders tars their client with the same brush. On Friday, US District Judge Richard Berman disagreed. “Ironically, perhaps,” Berman said, Korkmaz’s testimony “seems helpful to Atilla’s defense. Korkmaz testified about Atilla’s non-involvement in the investigation that he, Korkmaz, undertook.”
Defense attorneys pursued what, to Berman, was a puzzling campaign to discredit Korkmaz by associating him with the Gülen movement. Atilla’s lawyer Todd Harrison accused Korkmaz of ties to the movement. “Citing reports from the largely state-controlled Turkish media, consistently ranked one of the least-free in terms of press freedom, Harrison pursued a string of questions depicting Korkmaz as in the thrall of cleric Fethullah Gülen,” wrote Courthouse News Service on Friday.
“While some of the defense team appear not to appreciate fully aspects of Mr. Korkmaz’s testimony as I’ve just described, the defense overall appears quite willing to join a rather farfetched conspiracy theory bandwagon which has been constructed and developed far outside any United States courtroom,” Berman said.
The judge added later: “I note that the defense’s at best illogical foreign conspiracy theory has no foundation in the record, and is, in reality, unpersuasive and borderline unprofessional, as a diversion from the issues to be decided in this case.
On the other hand, the Yeni Şafak daily, a staunch supporter of President Erdoğan, on Friday said that in response to the trial of a Turkish banker in New York, Turkey had launched an investigation into some 30 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in Turkey, claiming they would all be expelled if any links to the faith-based Gülen movement were discovered.
According to the daily, the decision came after the testimony of Hüseyin Korkmaz, in a New York court where Atilla is being tried for violating US sanctions on Iran. Korkmaz called Erdoğan the “No. 1” target in a group that also included. Yeni Şafak wrote that the role of FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) staff members, who officially number more than 30 in Turkey, and Korkmaz’s illegal departure from Turkey and arrival in the US with a fake passport will all be investigated.
If any links to Korkmaz are identified, the FBI agents will face legal process in accordance with Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Articles 327 and 328 related to the leak of classified state documents. The FBI agents will be expelled, and no other US intelligence officials will be allowed to work in Turkey, the daily claimed.
Meawwhile, in Turkey, 3 of aides of Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab were arrested in İstanbul on Friday on charges of “espionage,” accused of trying to send documents to a New York court handling the case into a former Turkish banker accused of taking part in a scheme to help Iran evade US sanctions.
According to a report by Hürriyet daily news, Sinem Arslan, Regaip Akol and Mustafa Hacısalihoğlu, who are also known as “black boxes” of Zarrab, were arrested as part of an investigation carried out by the İstanbul Chief Prosecutor’s Office. The three were among the 17 people detained previously as part of the investigation into Zarrab’s activities.
Zarrab’s name was involved in Turkey’s Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption probes, which also embroiled four former ministers and other state officials. Zarrab was accused of paying bribes to senior government figures, but eventually the charges were quashed by the government.
Zarrab was arrested in the US last year over evading sanctions on Iran, but after he became the prosecution’s top witness in the trial, former Halkbank deputy general manager Atilla is now the sole man in the dock accused of violating Iran sanctions, bribery and money laundering.
The İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on Dec. 1 ordered the seizure of assets belonging to Zarrab and his acquaintances. One of the reasons for the seizure was that “the procurement of information should stay secret for the security, internal and foreign political interests of the Republic of Turkey, and to protect the country from the political and military espionage practices of foreign countries.”
The prosecutor’s office then expanded its investigation and initially detained Arslan, Akol and Hacısalihoğlu. The three are accused of trying to send documents to the court in the US, in addition to “partially or completely destroying, damaging or stealing documents and records regarding the state’s security or its domestic and foreign political benefits, as well as using them outside their purpose and committing forgery over them.” The remaining 14 suspects were released on condition of judicial control.