Turkish tycoon’s ‘extraordinary’ attempts to play role in US pastor’s release revealed

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A Turkish columnist has claimed that Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, a businessman who fled Turkey in late 2020 due to money laundering charges, made “extraordinary attempts” to have a role in getting jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson released in 2018, Turkish media reported on Thursday.

Before he was released on October 12, 2018, Brunson was jailed for 593 days on allegations of membership in the Gülen movement, which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan labels as a terrorist organization and deems the orchestrator of an abortive coup on July 15, 2016.

İsmail Saymaz, a columnist for the Sözcü daily, said in an article on Thursday, citing Brunson’s lawyer İsmail Cem Havalurt, that Korkmaz made several attempts to be involved in facilitating the pastor’s release before he was freed.

Saymaz quoted Havalurt as saying that Korkmaz contacted him a day before a hearing and said that Brunson should make a statement on A Haber, a staunchly pro-government TV station, and say “I love Turkish people, and the allegations against me aren’t true.”

When Havalurt asked what good it would do, Korkmaz said there were conflicting factions in the Turkish government with some wanting to keep Brunson behind bars and that such a statement on A Haber would strengthen their hand against them, according to Saymaz.

The columnist added that although Brunson refused to take the businessman’s advice, Korkmaz requested, on the day of the trial, that Havalurt publicly identify him as playing a key role in getting Brunson released.

Halavurt declined the request, but Korkmaz nonetheless turned up by the lawyer’s side — and in full view of the cameras — as Brunson left the courthouse.

Saymaz also cited the lawyer as saying that Korkmaz visited Brunson at his home, some time after he was moved to house arrest in July 2018, along with a Catholic priest who served as a mediator.

“Korkmaz may have tried to create links with the US government. He tried to get involved in the Brunson case, but failed to get what he wanted,” the lawyer told Saymaz, implying that Korkmaz wanted to be seen as the key individual who facilitated Brunson’s release in order to gain Washington’s sympathy for his case in the US.

Korkmaz was business partners with Jacob and Isaiah Kingson, the executives of a Salt Lake City biodiesel company who pleaded guilty in US federal court to a $511 million tax credit scheme in March 2020.

Turkish prosecutors in December had issued a detention warrant for Korkmaz, the CEO of SBK Holding, following a joint probe by Turkey’s financial crimes unit and tax auditing authorities into an alleged $132 million money laundering scheme in Turkey. A Turkish court issued an arrest warrant for Korkmaz in May.

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