Turkish cryptocurrency boss jailed for 11,196 years for defrauding investors

Eyebrows were raised around the world as news of the verdicts for Faruk Fatih Özer, a cryptocurrency businessman, and his two siblings, Serap Özer and brother Güven Özer, circulated.

The trio were sentenced to a staggering 11,196 years each after being found guilty of aggravated fraud, leading a criminal organisation and money laundering after their cryptocurrency exchange Thodex went bust. A judicial fine of 135 million Turkish lira (approx. $5 million) was also imposed.

Özer, 29, had fled to Albania in 2021 after his Thodex exchange suddenly collapsed and investors unable to access their money.

Protesting his innocence during his trial, Özer told the court that he would “not have acted so amateurishly” if his intent had been criminal. He claimed he was “smart enough to lead any institution on Earth” having started his business at the age of 22.

Born in Kocaeli, western Türkiye, Özer founded Thodex in 2017. The company rapidly grew to become one of the country’s largest exchanges for digital currencies, coinciding with the equally rapid depreciation of the Turkish lira due to fiscal policies pursued by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The heavy downward slide of the Turkish lira encouraged many Turks to start using cryptocurrencies, pushing up the popularity of exchanges like Thodex. At its peak, Thodex is said to have had some 400,000 members with estimated deposits worth $2 billion.

Özer became the face of the cryptocurrency craze in Turkiye. He was well regarded for his knowledge of this new world of virtual currency and used his status to get close to prominent government figures. He was pictured alongside the then Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and former Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, although the pair distanced themselves from Özer after his case came to light.

There was nothing to imply Thodex was in any difficulty, but the company suddenly imploded in April 2021 and with it, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of investor assets and deposits also disappeared.

Rather than face the music, Özer went on the run, prompting the Turkish authorities to issue an Interpol red notice for his arrest.

Özer was discovered to be in Albania last year and detained and was extradited to Turkiye earlier this year.

The young businessman was promptly arrested on his forced return to Turkiye and charged with multiple offences. These included establishing and managing an organisation with the purpose of committing a crime, being a member of a crime organisation, committing fraud by misusing the information system tools of banks and credit institutions, committing fraud as merchants or company executives, and laundering assets procured through crime.

The case against Özer, his brother and sister, and 18 others was heard at the Anatolian 9th Heavy Penal Court. Dozens of people had been arrested and questioned as part of the investigation. Özer, his two siblings, and four senior employers had been tried while detained in jail.

After the verdicts on Thursday, 16 of the 21 people tried were acquitted due to a lack of evidence and the court ordered the release of four of the seven who had detained.

Özer and his siblings were sentenced separately for multiple crimes against 2,027 victims, culminating in their huge jail sentence. However, prosecutors had asked for more, urging the court to sentence Özer, his sister Serap and brother Güven to 40,562 years in prison, AFP reported.

Such extraordinary prison sentences are common in Turkiye, especially since the abolition of the death penalty. Last year, cult preacher and television owner Adnan Oktar was jailed for 8,658 years for fraud and sex crimes. Ten of his followers received the same sentence.