MANHATTAN (CN) – At the start of his dramatic cross-examination, a former Istanbul police officer testifying in a multibillion-dollar money laundering case denied association with a Pennsylvania cleric’s group the Turkish government often uses to discredit him.
Mehmet Hakan Atilla, former manager of Turkey’s state-run Halkbank, is on trial in New York, with prosecutors calling him the “architect” of two systems to evade U.S. sanctions against Iran: one involving a network of couriers carting off suitcases filled with gold and another disguising assets as humanitarian food aid.
Ex-officer Huseyin Korkmaz, who has been testifying here for three days, had to flee his native Turkey after being accused of ties to what is sometimes called the Gulenist movement, other times by the acronym FETO.
The Turkish government brands this group, who are followers of Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, a terrorist organization. Gulenists insist that they are a peaceful religious group facing persecution in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed them for multiple coup attempts, one of them as recently as last year. Erdogan also claimed that criminal probes accusing high-ranking members of his government of accepting millions in bribes were actually plots to overthrow him, allegedly through secret orchestration by the Gulenists.
“This is an international coup attempt,” Erdogan said on Dec. 5, as reported by the Turkish independent outlet Bianet.
“I call on the US: Don’t you still get the July 15 FETO (Fethullahist Terror Organization) coup attempt?” the Turkish leader asked last week. “What are you trying to hide as all criminals of the FETO have been tried; their files are being sent to you and some of them fled to the US?”
One of the supposed criminals Erdogan had been accusing was Korkmaz, who rapidly fell from grace as a high-ranking officer, to a prisoner, to a fugitive from his homeland.
On Wednesday, Korkmaz vigorously denied a Turkish indictment that he escaped, which charged him with a coup attempt, affiliation with a terrorist group, espionage and misuse of authority.
"That is correct,” Korkmaz said. “There were such allegations, and all of these allegations were baseless, and they were slanders.”
The reason for these allegations, Korkmaz said, was that he had been a leader in an investigation against Erdogan’s top allies. These names included Turkey’s former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, former Minister of the Interior Muammer Guler, and former Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis.
Erdogan himself was also a target of the investigation, code-named “No. 1,” Korkmaz testified.
“I did my job,” Korkmaz told the jury today. “And just like all the police officers, I did what I was supposed to do as a police officer.”
Once his investigation heated up in December 2013, Korkmaz found himself reassigned from Istanbul to the most remote other corner of Turkey, in Hakkari, where he was assigned to protect a bridge. Prison came after that, followed by an escape from Turkey through three unspecified countries before connecting with U.S. prosecutors with evidence he had secretly stashed.
The 30-year-old said today that he does not regret his ordeals.
"I do have the pride of having conducted such an investigation,” Korkmaz said.
"I thank God," he added, for allowing him to play a role in it.
Grilling Korkmaz on the witness stand today was attorney Todd Harrison, a member of the legal team representing defendant Atilla.
Harrison’s cross-examination of Korkmaz got so heated at one point that U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who is presiding over the case, reminded the attorney that he is not on television.
"This isn't ‘Law and Order,’” Berman scolded, referring to the TV crime drama. “Just ask the question.”
Harrison’s questions grew more pointed when the subject turned to Gulen, an affiliation that Korkmaz flatly denied.
"Whether you call it the Gulen organization,” Korkmaz said, or FETO, or some other name: "I am not a member of that organization.”
Korkmaz’s testimony continues on Wednesday.