One of Turkey’s most wanted fugitives has returned to the country, raising questions about how he managed to stay on the run for more than three years despite an international manhunt.
Mehmet Aydin is not a dangerous terrorist or gangster but rather a baby-faced 30-year-old suspected of fleecing thousands of Turks in a Ponzi scheme based on an online game similar to FarmVille.
Mr Aydin — nicknamed Tosuncuk by local media after the Turkish word for a plump, healthy baby — handed himself over to the Turkish consulate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last week and arrived in Istanbul on Saturday night.
He faces multiple charges of fraud, money laundering and establishing a criminal organisation in relation to Ciftlik Bank, or Farm Bank, which promised rewards through advertising and by investing in real-life agricultural projects in Turkey. Prosecutors are seeking a prison sentence of more than 75,000 years.
Ciftlik, based in Northern Cyprus, collected the equivalent of more than $131 million from some 132,000 people over 18 months before it collapsed in early 2018.
Mr Aydin, who is accused in prosecution documents of having had access to some $59m after he left Turkey, denies the allegations and says he was himself the victim of fraud.
“I did my best during my time abroad to address the grievances but I did not get any results due to the investigation, prosecution and arrest warrants against me,” he said in a statement released to the Sozcu newspaper before his surrender.
Following his detention, many have asked why he was not seized earlier. Photographs of Mr Aydin posing with officials from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) before Ciftlik’s collapse have fuelled claims the government has been lax in trying to capture him.
The government's success in extraditing suspects wanted in connection with a 2016 coup attempt has also raised suspicions about why such efforts do not seem to have been applied to Mr Aydin.
A man described as Mr Aydin’s “right hand” at Ciftlik previously worked for 10 years as an aide to the AKP mayor of Istanbul’s Umraniye district.
There are also questions over why Turkish police did not act when private detectives acting for lawyers hired by Mr Aydin’s alleged victims located him in Brazil last year.
Mr Aydin is currently being questioned by a prosecutor in Istanbul and is due to appear in court alongside some of his co-accused in September. A judge has ordered that his case be subject to a confidentiality order, meaning the details will be kept secret until the court hearing.
Veli Agbaba, an MP for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the order indicated a possible cover-up.
“A confidentiality order has been imposed in the Ciftlik Bank case,” he said. “The reason is simple: someone does not want us to be aware of the AKP officials who helped Tosuncuk, [who] facilitated his departure abroad or, if any, those he gave money.”
Since Mr Aydin left Turkey in early 2018, authorities followed up on possible sightings across South and Central America, as well as Canada and Ukraine. An Interpol “red notice” seeking his detention was issued in March that year.
Two years ago, however, images surfaced showing him posing on a yacht with his Ukrainian girlfriend. Open-source investigators at Bellingcat identified the possible location as a marina in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
Mob boss Sedat Peker, another Turkish fugitive who has captured national attention over the last two months through a series of online videos alleging corruption within ruling circles, claimed officials were being paid off to turn a blind eye to Mr Aydin’s presence in Belarus.
“It is obvious that some people working in our state, who do not bring this person from Belarus, received a share of this money,” Mr Peker, who was once a AKP supporter, tweeted in June. “The people who went to Belarus to visit this person and the people who acted as intermediaries are known.”