Turkish crypto boss who hid in Albania, laundered money in Malta, sentenced to 11,196 years

Crypto boss Faruk Fatih Özer, who stashed millions of euros in stolen money in Malta while hiding from Turkish justice in Albania under the nose of authorities, has been sentenced to 11,196 years in prison by a court in Turkey.

Ozer defrauded clients of his Turkey-based Thodex crypto exchange of over $2 billion after he closed the site with no warning, pocketed deposits and left the country in May 2021. 

He was seen leaving Istanbul airport in April, bound for Albania and was then spotted in a Tirana hotel but was not caught by authorities until over a year later.

The Turkish national was arrested in the central Albanian city of Elbasan in August 2022 and was deported despite Özer insisting his life was in danger if he was returned to Turkey. 

The Thodex scam is touted as the largest con in Turkish history, and some 400,000 people are believed to have fallen victim.

On Thursday, the court acquitted 16 of 21 defendants and released four of seven behind bars due to lack of evidence. 

The five remaining defendants were given sentences of varying length. These included Ozer, his sister Serap Özer, and brother Guven Özer, who each received 11,196 years, 10 months and 15 days, and a fine of some 135 million Turkish Lira, equivalent to €4.7 million.

Prosecutors had initially asked for a combined sentence of over 40,000 years, commonplace in Turkey since it abolished the death penalty in 2004 to help its European Union membership bid.

Özer arrived back in Turkey in April 2023, where police immediately detained him on seven charges, including creating and managing an organisation with the intent to commit a crime, being a member of such an organisation, fraud by use of information systems, fraud of merchants or company executives, and money laundering.

As for the last charge of money laundering, some  €13 million was stashed in Malta, according to judicial documents.

The MASAK report found Özer transferred clients’ crypto assets worth €13.2 million from three separate accounts to wallets at Malta’s crypto asset service provider. 

According to MASAK’s investigations, those crypto wallets belong to Faruk Fatih Özer and co-defendants Cem Uzunoğlu and Zuhal Özer.

But this is not the first time criminals with Albanian links have used Malta as a haven for their illicit activities.

Malta-Albania links

On-the-run Albanian businessman Mirel Mertiri, involved in a controversial incinerator scheme currently under investigation by the country’s corruption and organised crime court, has business interests in Malta, a residence permit, and potentially owns property.

Documents from the Malta Business Registry show that Mertiri is registered as living at one of the island’s most exclusive and luxurious complexes, Portomaso.

The complex was built by Tumas Group, previously owned by Yorgen Fenech, the man charged with ordering the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

He also held a Maltese ID card and Maltese residency as recently as 2018. Mertiri also owns two Maltese companies called KL Group, and Sien Group Ltd. KL Group is part-owned by KLME Holding LTD, a Seychelles company mentioned in the Paradise Papers leak.

Mertiri was a de facto owner of a company that won a concession to build incinerators in the country but was later revealed to be fraudulent and a front for money laundering and corruption, including bribing government ministers. The scheme is believed to have cost Albanian taxpayers more than  €350 million.

Albanian media has reported that Mertiri may have funnelled the proceeds of corruption into his Maltese companies.

Klodian Zoto, also implicated in the incinerator affair, reportedly paid for holidays for the now-ex-wife of on-the-run Albanian ex-deputy prime minister Arben Ahmetaj to visit Malta, Italy and Austria.

Ahmetaj’s parliamentary immunity was lifted shortly after an arrest warrant was issued for him concerning the waste-disposal scam. It was revealed he had already left the country some days before.

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