MANHATTAN (CN) – For the past two days, an ex-Istanbul police officer has faced caustic questioning by a defense attorney about accusations tying him to a group that the Turkish government brands a terrorist organization.
Turning the tables on Thursday, a U.S. 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 Gulen organization?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard asked Turkish exile Huseyin Korkmaz on Thursday.
The Gulen organization, sometimes known as “FETO,” “Hizmet,” or "the Cemaat,” refers to followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader now living in Pennsylvania.
“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.
Now a key witness for the U.S. 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 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several of his former ministers – including ex-economy minister Zafer Caglayan, former interior minister Muammer Guler, and former EU affair minister Egemen Bagis – 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 Erdogan and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and all these things were in the investigation,” Korkmaz said, referring also to Erdogan's son.
Though now mutual enemies, Erdogan’s AK Party used to be allies with the Gulenist movement until a precipitous falling out following a Turkish corruption scandal in 2013.
Korkmaz testified today that their seeming antagonism today may look different underneath the surface.
“While the investigation was underway, and I had the evidence against the ministers as well as Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself, there was the plea from Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Gulen himself saying we missed you so much, you're in the United States, come back,” he said. “That's what he was doing while I had the evidence in the investigation showing what they were doing.”
As Korkmaz’s probe heated up, so did whispers that the officer secretly served the Gulenist movement, which Erdogan 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, eventually entering the United States with 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 Gulen, 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 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 Manhattan-based firm of McDermott, Will & Emery, Korkmaz’s incarceration ended under suspicious circumstances. Harrison claimed Gulen 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.”
The ex-officer told the attorney that it was not Gulen 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 Ataturk 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 Ataturk, the country’s first president and staunch secularist, delivered the famous speech to which Korkmaz referred 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," Ataturk said, according to one translation.
Korkmaz finished his testimony Thursday afternoon, as the U.S. government closed its case.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman indicated that Atilla will take the witness stand in his own defense, and Thursday’s proceedings ended with a jury being shown a video of his arrest earlier this year.
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