Did Turkey’s Washington ambassador visit a Gülenist?

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Cevheri Güven

A visit paid by Turkish Ambassador to the US Murat Mercan to Turkish businessman Yalçın Ayaslı last week has been hotly debated in Turkey. This was the first time a senior bureaucrat had officially visited someone who was accused of links to the Gülen movement and for whom an arrest warrant had been issued in Turkey. Ayaslı is also a claimant in a lawsuit alleging that his former company, Borajet, was acquired by extortion and money laundering by Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, against whom a federal racketeering complaint has been filed. The timing of the visit is surprising in that it came just before a meeting scheduled between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Joe Biden.

Turkey’s embassy in Washington failed to announce the visit on its official website, but Ayaslı said on Facebook: “Our Washington Ambassador Hasan Murat Mercan paid a visit to us at Concord, Massachusetts. We were glad to meet him. We wish him success at a time when the Turkish-US relations go through a challenging period.”

Ayaslı, a businessman with investments in Turkey and the US, had filed a lawsuit in the US claiming that Korkmaz had taken over his airline, Borajet, by deceit with support from certain politicians. Starting from 2016, Ayaslı had been targeted by pro-Erdoğan media outlets with reports that he was a member of the Gülen movement and took part in a failed coup in July 2016.

It turned out that Korkmaz had also defrauded the US Treasury and illegally transferred tens of millions of dollars to Turkey.

A scientist and businessman with billion-dollar investments

Ayaslı is known as a successful scientist and businessman. Born in 1946 in Turkey’s capital city of Ankara, Ayaslı graduated from a Turkish university before he completed his master’s degree and doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1973. He worked as an academic in various electrical engineering departments in Turkey but left to settle in the US after a military coup in 1980.

He conducted research on microwaves at Raytheon in Massachusetts. Ayaslı is the holder of 15 international patents. In 1985 he decided to run his own company and established Hittite Microwave Corp. Serving as CEO and chairman of the board for 20 years and making Hittite Microwave Corp. a publicly traded company on NASDAQ, Ayaslı sold it to Analog Devices Inc. for $2.45 billion in 2014.

Following the sale, Ayaslı focused on science investments in Turkey and lobbying to improve Turkish-US ties. He established one of Turkey’s most important science centers. He served as the founder and chairman of the Turkish Cultural Foundation and the Turkish Coalition of America, with offices in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Istanbul.

How did Ayaslı become a terrorist and coup perpetrator?

Although Ayaslı was publicly known as an accomplished businessman, cultural ambassador and scientist, he was suddenly labeled as a terrorist and coup perpetrator by Turkish media outlets. Korkmaz and Kamil Ekim Alptekin were central figures in this swift change of heart and the developments leading to the issuance of an arrest warrant for Ayaslı.

Alptekin is chairman of the Turkish-American Business Association (TABA) and head of the Turkey-US Business Council. A 2017 Wall Street Journal report mentioned Alptekin as the person who arranged a meeting between former US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and Turkish ministers to discuss the extradition, or, if that was not possible, kidnapping of Fethullah Gülen. Later talking to The Associated Press, Alptekin admitted that he had arranged a meeting between Flynn and two Turkish officials.

Alptekin also helped Korkmaz lobby in the US and introduced him to Erdoğan. Korkmaz is charged with running an extortion and international money laundering operation.

Alptekin also introduced Korkmaz to members of the polygamous Kingston family: brothers Jacob and Isaiah, mother Rachel and Jacob’s wife Sally. The Kingstons were charged with defrauding the US Treasury of $511 million in incentives for biodiesel production and transferring a significant portion of the money unlawfully to Turkey with help from Korkmaz. Jacob and Isaiah Kingston were caught trying to flee to Turkey and subsequently reached a plea deal with the federal prosecutor in the fraud case against them. In a 22-page petition submitted to Judge Jill B. Parrish, Jacob and Isaiah Kingston described how they forged documents to cheat the US authorities and also provided a list of the funds they had deposited in Turkish banks, companies they acquired and real estate investments they made as well as the sums they invested in Turkey’s Mega Varlik Corp.

Following these revelations, the US authorities asked Turkey to freeze Korkmaz’s assets in Turkey, a request with which the Erdoğan government long refused to comply. The assets of SBK Holding, owned by Korkmaz, were frozen in October 2020; however, it was claimed that Korkmaz was given ample time to transfer his assets out of Turkey.

Lawsuit in the US: Taking over Borajet with a media ruse

In 2019, Ayaslı brought legal action against Korkmaz in the US. Ayaslı maintains that Korkmaz had taken over Borajet, an airline he had owned, by deceit.

In his petition to the court, Ayaslı argued that Alptekin, who acted as an arranger in the US on behalf of the Erdoğan government, collaborated with certain journalists and launched a media lynching against him in Turkish media outlets, which published news stories labeling him as a terrorist and coup perpetrator, that these media stories served to devalue his company, Borajet, and that Korkmaz eventually acquired its shares for a small sum.

In his petition Ayaslı claimed that Korkmaz told Alptekin to speak to Turkish media figures and offered to pay them in return for false news reports targeting Ayaslı.

According to Ayaslı’s petition, at a meeting held in August 2017 at the Kingstons’ villa on the Bosporus in Istanbul, certain journalists were told that they would be taken on a free European tour if they published false news stories targeting Ayaslı. Ayaslı also noted that Jacob, Isaiah, Rachel and Sally Kingston, defendants in the fraud case in the US, made other promises as well.

In his petition Ayaslı claimed that the Kingstons met with Bülent Başkoy, Ergün Diler, Ersin Ramoğlu, Mahmut Övür, Soner Yalçın and other journalists and that following these meetings, news stories defaming him were published by their media outlets including Takvim, Sabah, OdaTV, Gazeteport, Cumhuriyet, Hürriyet, and Habertürk. In these stories Ayaslı was portrayed as close to the Gülen movement and linked to the failed coup of July 2016. Following these news reports, a Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for Ayaslı over alleged links to the Gülen movement, and Ayaslı was no longer able to travel to Turkey.

Due to these news stories and the arrest warrant, the market value of Ayaslı’s Borajet hit rock bottom, and Korkmaz easily acquired it. However, two years later, Korkmaz had to leave Turkey due to pressure from the US and conflicts with the Turkish government over financial matters. Turkey’s ambassador to the US visited Ayaslı despite the fact that he was accused of membership in a terrorist organization by the pro-Erdoğan media and for whom an arrest warrant had been issued.

Ahead of a meeting with Biden

As US President Biden was scheduled to meet with Erdoğan for the first time on June 14, Ambassador Mercan’s visit to Ayaslı on June 11 raised eyebrows. The ambassador’s sudden visit was seen as an olive branch extended by the Erdoğan government, which had been attempting to talk to the Biden administration by making use of Ayaslı’s lobbing power.

Lawsuits Ayaslı filed against Korkmaz in the US constitute another critical matter. Ambassador Mercan should have been concerned about the extent to which Ayaslı would discuss the ties between Korkmaz and Turkish government officials in the lawsuits.

Considering that the Turkish Embassy in Washington refuses to conduct any passport or ID card renewal or transactions for people linked to the Gülen movement and that these people are even prohibited from entering the embassy building, the significance of Ambassador Mercan’s visit to a person who was indicted in Turkey over links to the Gülen movement becomes salient. For some commentators, this signifies the sheer magnitude of Ankara’s conundrum in its ties with Washington.

Ayaslı denies any links to the Gülen movement. More than 100,000 people have been arrested in Turkey over links to the movement since 2015, and investigations into approximately 500,000 people are underway. The assets of thousands of businessmen have been confiscated in the process. According to London Advocacy, assets in excess of $32 billion have been confiscated and transferred to pro-government businessmen.

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