Austrian court accepts U.S. extradition request for Turkish businessman

An Austrian court has accepted a U.S. request for the extradition of Turkish businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, Deutsche Welle Turkish reported on Monday.

The businessman, who is charged with defrauding the U.S. Treasury and money laundering in Turkey, was arrested in Austria in June of last year at the request of the United States.

The same court had accepted a Turkish request for his extradition last summer.

Austria’s Federal Ministry of Justice is set to decide which country Korkmaz will be extradited to, according to DW.

Korkmaz, referred to by his initials SBK, is wanted by U.S. prosecutors for laundering $133 million in fraud proceeds while a Turkish court last May issued an arrest warrant in absentia for him.

SBK has been known for his years-long close ties to Turkey’s ruling party and party allies, making his extradition a very sensitive matter for Ankara.

In late 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appealed to a local court to have his photos with SBK removed from online news outlets.

U.S. prosecutors accuse SBK of conspiring with individuals including U.S. businessmen Jacob and Isaiah Kingston to launder the proceeds from a tax fraud scheme, buying Turkish airline Borajet, hotels in Turkey and Switzerland, a yacht called the Queen Anne and a villa overlooking Istanbul’s Bosporus waterway.

SBK, while in Austrian prison, told his lawyers that he would rather face trial in Turkey.

Korkmaz made headlines last year when infamous Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker, in one of his nine hour-long tell-all videos laying out allegations of corruption and criminal activity among government circles, accused Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu of tipping the businessman off before raids seeking his arrest. Soylu never denied that he hosted SBK in Ankara and told him about the impending case against him, therefore prompting him to leave the country effectively next morning.

Ahval reported in June that Peker had said, ‘’Paramount Hotel, the luxury vacation spot located in the touristic town Bodrum in southwestern Turkey that Korkmaz owns, has hosted many high-level government officials, including judges, prosecutors and police chiefs.’’

In addition to SBK’s alleged role in a money laundering scheme with the Kingston Brothers, there are a few other less known activities of the businessman which overlap with the U.S. interests.

One of those areas is Venezuela’s sanction-busting efforts and SBK’s role in that mechanism. The Turkish businessman previously purchased a private jet with U.S. government funding and the aircraft was used by Washington-sanctioned Venezuelan Oil Minister Tareck El Aissami.

U.S. Justice Department, in 2019, released an indictment on El Aissami, accusing him on drug trafficking charges. El Aissami was in Turkey for a month in January 2019 when he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ahval reported in last June:

El Aissami, who has been sanctioned by the U.S.Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control and features on the U.S. customs agency’s top 10 most-wanted list as a narcotics trafficker, used Korkmaz’s private jet to fly from Istanbul to Moscow on Feb. 23, 2019, and from there back to Caracas.

SBK’s flights to Venezuela continued despite arrests of suspects accused of violating U.S. sanctions, the academic and former Turkish diplomat Imdat Oner noted at the time, referring to the case of Leon Maal, who helped El Aissami charter a private flight from Vnukovo International Airport in Russia to Simón Bolívar International Airport in Venezuela on February of 2019. Maal was arrested and charged later on in Florida for being part of the conspiracy against the U.S. Kingpin Act by participating in flights to Russia, Turkey, Dominican Republic and Venezuela with El Aissami.

Another area where SBK appeared to have been involved with shady international figures is Congo. SBK was in Congo in 2020 with Lebanese businessman Saleh Assi, who was sanctioned by the United States in December 2019 for money laundering for Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Israel, Germany, and the Arab League.

After U.S. sanctions targeted him, Assi had much of his assets frozen, and was struggling to secure goods for his large-scale companies in Congo. However, SBK’s close business partners Cüneyt Özen and Kamil Feridun Özkaraman came to the rescue in 2020, offering him the Mikado Investment and Business Development Co., which was established back in 2016.

The Lebanese businessman remained afloat thanks to all the goods Mikado is able to procure from around the world. The records, which were published exclusively by Ahval at the time, showed that it wasn’t only SBK’s partners and Mikado Investment that were involved in the scheme allowing Saleh Assi to work around U.S. sanctions, but SBK directly through a company he owned.

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