Home Money He Emptied an Entire Crypto Exchange Onto a Thumb Drive. Then He Disappeared

He Emptied an Entire Crypto Exchange Onto a Thumb Drive. Then He Disappeared

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He Emptied an Entire Crypto Exchange Onto a Thumb Drive. Then He Disappeared

He told the court he had grown his beard down to his collarbone and shaved his head. He said that when he heard about the prosecutor’s indictment – that his brother and sister were accused of fraud, that they would be tried within a month, and that without Özer they would most likely take the blame for the fall of Thodex and would spend the rest of their lives in prison – he had a wild idea: if every claimant was repaid, would a crime ever really happen? He did indeed have the Thodex wallet with him, he told the jury, although he claims he cannot remember how much was in it. He asked Erarslan to help him reimburse the approximately 2,000 claimants who had lost their money.

And to some extent they did. In total, while on the run, he paid about 185 million liras ($10 million at the time) to more than 1,000 claimants. As Özer tells it, when the cold wallet was empty, he threw it into the Ionian Sea.

When he brought up his use of other people’s accounts to trade crypto – an action at the heart of the case – he started to sound defiant and a bit condescending: “Startup founders take on all the responsibilities, such as the nature of startups requires,” he said. He underlined that they had no authority in the company and had no access to these accounts. “There is no lawlessness or irregularity. Furthermore, I am not the first, nor the last, nor the only person to broker the cryptocurrency market.”

Towards the end of his speech, Özer’s frustrations seemed to turn into bitterness and pride. Facing the judges, he said it was “absurd to think that the IQ level of the person who made such a stupid escape plan” was the same as that of a criminal mastermind allegedly able to control Turkey’s financial to mislead regulators for four years. “I’m smart enough to run any institution in the world,” Özer said. He then had Erarslan pull up an image of a cartoon mocking the court. Visibly irritated, the chief judge ordered him to remove it.

The verdict was delivered quietly on a sultry Thursday in September 2023 in an almost empty courtroom. Özer stood up and solemnly read out the lyrics of a Turkish folk song: ‘The End of the Road Is Visible’.

The chief judge imposed the same sentence on Güven, Serap and Özer: 11,196 years in prison – for setting up and managing a criminal organization and laundering assets. Most other suspects were released. It was the longest sentence in Turkey’s history, handed down in the month before the centenary of the Republic.

Faruk Fatih Ozer became an example of crypto crimes, but it also became an accidental representation of a particular economic era – and the lengths people will go to to escape it. For the Turkish regime, he was less an opponent than an unfortunate product of flawed economic policy. In that light, the draconian sentence is not only punishment for a crime, but also for shining a spotlight on decades of embarrassing failures, which were made clear to the entire country on the day Özer disappeared.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Turkey remains a haven for cryptocurrencies. In the year after Thodex went bankrupt, inflation hit the country a 24-year high of 85.5 percent. Prices for goods have almost doubled – and so has the percentage of Turks who owned bitcoin, ether and other currencies. In terms of trade volume, the country ranks fourth worldwide, after the US, Great Britain and India. After decades of watching their currency devalue, their businesses and their nest eggs in trouble, the Turkish people will not let this dream pass so easily. Earlier this year, the country’s finance minister said the government was working on it finalize new regulations about crypto, “to make this field more secure and eliminate potential risks.” So even though Özer took on an authoritarian regime and lost – either because he believed too fully in the gospel of decentralization, because he was a naive child, because he was a cynical con man, or some combination of all three – the flames of economic crisis, revolution he helped, won’t go away anytime soon.

Jenna Scatena is an independent journalist from San Francisco currently living in Istanbul.

Additional reporting by Beril Eski, Gülşah Karadağ and Vladimir Karaj.

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