MANHATTAN (CN) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been known to Istanbul police as “No. 1” in a 2013 corruption investigation, a witness testified Monday in New York.
Prosecutors led former Istanbul police officer Huseyin Korkmaz through the details of the Istanbul probe this morning to kick off a third week of trial over bank trades that flouted U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Erdogan has not been charged himself, but the trial of former Turkish banker Mehmet Hakan Atilla — accused of facilitating those violations for Turkey’s state-run Hankbank — has been replete with allegations of Erdogan’s involvement in his previous role as that nation’s prime minister.
Delivering fresh accusations against the Turkish leader through a court interpreter today, Korkmaz shared a personal story of exile, persecution, deliverance and globe-hopping escape worthy of a cross between a John Le Carre novel and a Homeric poem.
“I did not feel legally secure in any way for myself,” Kormaz told the jury about events that preceded his dramatic escape from Turkey.
“During that time, the prosecutor had requested an order for arrest for myself based on a different investigation,” he continued. “I understood this time to be a time where rights to defend one’s own and freedoms of an individual and freedoms as a human were taken away. So I took my wife and my daughter, and I left the country that I dearly love.”
Korkmaz, who is barely 30 years old, told a New York jury that he graduated third in a class of roughly 360 students to rise through the ranks in the Istanbul police force, where he served as a ranking officer on the projects and public corruption desk.
In that capacity, Korkmaz said, his unit came across the case of gold trader Reza Zarrab, a former Erdogan ally whose testimony for the U.S. government last week rattled the highest echelons of the Turkish government.
Zarrab secretly pleaded guilty before trial to laundering billions of dollars to Iran through a complicated system of sham gold trades and spurious humanitarian food aid.
To his police unit in Istanbul, Korkmaz testified, Zarrab was viewed as a one-man “cartel.”
This cartel oversaw three other groups, one of which was led by Halkbank’s former general manager Suleyman Aslan and Zafer Caglayan, Turkey’s former minister of the economy, according to Korkmaz.
The exiled police officer added that Turkey’s ex-minister of the interior, Muammer Guler, led the next group, and that the final one was led by Zarrab’s former partner Taha Ahmet Alacaci.
These names have come up before over the course of trial: Zarrab previously testified to bribing Caglayan between “45 and 50 million” euros, and paying $100,000 to Guler’s son Baris.
Korkmaz testified today that the elder Guler had funneled bribes through his son more than once, including a bribe in the amount of $200,000 through an intermediary.
The Istanbul investigation reached a climax on Dec. 17, 2013, with the arrest of Zarrab, Aslan and dozens of others tied to top Turkish officials, in what Erdogan described at the time as a “judicial coup.”
Korkmaz said that the counteroffensive against the investigators leading the probe came only five days later, with the police force shuffling him and other ranked officers to new assignments on Dec. 22.
Sent more than 1,000 miles to the other farthest corner of Turkey, Korkmaz said that he began his new beat in the bridge protection unit for the city of Hakkari, near the Iraqi border.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lockard asked what that job entailed, Korkmaz explained: “It was to protect the bridge.”
After internal exile, Korkmaz said, came prison in September 2014.
The ex-officer said he was released nearly two years later on Feb. 9, 2016, before managing to flee months later in August.
Korkmaz said that leaving his native country was not easy — not only for sentimental reasons, but because the Turkish government took away his passport and banned him from international travel.
“I found a smuggler,” Korkmaz said. “I asked him to smuggle me out, and I fled through a border crossing.”
That was only the beginning of what Korkmaz described as a journey across three other nations, using a legal loophole in the third to acquire a passport from government authorities under a false name.
Korkmaz also had escaped with batches of digital evidence of interest to U.S. authorities, including a CD of audio recordings that would eventually be played for the New York jury.
“Were you able to make a copy of the entire investigative file?” Lockard, the prosecutor, asked him.
“No, I was able to get only what had been scanned as of that time, and I had thought that I had picked up all the audio,” Korkmaz replied. “But it turns out I was only able to get the first CD.”
Fleeing with this bounty carried its own risks, he added, citing Turkey’s record of torturing suspects.
“I was aware of the bad treatments that I would be subject to, and I could call that torture, actually,” Korkmaz said, referring to the experience of knowing about these risks.
“But what made me really uneasy in these countries was anything that could be done against me through unofficial means, and for that reason, I was not going out of the house much in these countries,” he added.
Some of the evidence shown to the jury today included photographs of large cash bribes that Korkmaz said his team found stashed in a shoebox in the home of the general manager of Turkey’s state-run bank.
“It’s stacks of 100-dollar bank notes, also stacks of euro bank notes at 500 euros each, also stacks of 100 Turkish Lira bank notes,” Korkmaz explained, showing the jury evidence found in the home of Suleyman Aslan.
The former general manager of the state-run Halkbank, Aslan is indicted in New York and remains at large.
Korkmaz’s testimony is expected to continue on Tuesday, after which prosecutors expect to call five more substantive witnesses, among others to be called to authenticate the chain of custody of the evidence.