Arresting and prosecuting people for possession of a US dollar bill seems too crazy to be true, but it is when it comes to Turkey, where owning a greenback in a one-dollar denomination may very well land you in prison on terrorism charges.
In fact, thousands of people, ranging from a US-Turkish dual national who worked for NASA to a prominent professor and author who travels frequently, were charged under terrorism laws in Turkey based on the evidence that they had one dollar bills in their possession. Court documents present pictures of one dollar bills with various serial numbers as criminal evidence against defendants who have become victims of a relentless persecution conducted against critics by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Considering that the US Federal Reserve reported $12.1 billion in one dollar bills in circulation at the end of 2017 and plans to have the Bureau of Engraving and Printingissue $2.5 billion in 2019 (mostly to replace worn-out bills), millions of people are potentially seen as terrorism suspects in the eyes of the Islamist government in Turkey. Thousands of court papers that were reviewed by Nordic Monitor suggest that Turkish authorities are confused as to what to make of the different letters and numbers in serial numbers found on one dollar bills from the perspective of criminal evidence.
In some indictments, Turkish authorities claimed that only F series dollar bills were used by members of the Gülen movement — a civic group that is critical of Erdoğan for corruption and his government’s links to armed jihadist groups — as a sort of secret communication tool. In others, letters on bills are claimed to indicate the status of members in the group. In some, it was maintained that members introduce themselves to each other by showing their own dollar bills to verify their identities through a global computer network. Fethullah Gülen himself personally hands out dollar bills to motivate his followers, some suggested. In several indictments prosecutors claimed the movement distributed F-series dollar bills to top administrators in the network, C-series to managers and J-series to all members.
Nordic Monitor has interviewed dozens of participants including senior figures from the Gülen movement who flat out rejected these allegations as baseless. They say there has never been such a practice among the group and that participants and volunteers simply know each other through referrals from other members. They made clear that all allegations of the use of dollar bills are far-fetched and that none bear any relation to the truth.
It appears the use of a dollar bill as criminal evidence is a complete hoax produced by the government and was most likely concocted by Turkish intelligence to defame the group, add a flavor of mystery to negative campaigning against an outspoken group and justify its persecution. This is hardly surprising given the track record of slanders invented by the regime against all critical groups and the pattern of systematic use of fabricated evidence to back up government allegations. At times, scandalous allegations were even directed at ally and partner governments, only to later be refuted.
In fact, the simple explanation for the serial numbers was provided by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing of the US Department of the Treasury, which stated that the first letter of such a serial number identifies the Federal Reserve Bank (FRB) that issued the note; since there are 12 FRBs, this letter is always between A and L for one-dollar notes. The last letter advances through the alphabet when all eight-character serial numbers have been printed for a specific FRB within the same series. The letter O is not used because of its similarity to the digit 0, and the letter Z is not used because it is reserved for test printings.
Federal Reserve notes, beginning with Series 1996, have two letters rather than one at the beginning of the serial number. On these notes, the first letter corresponds to the series of the note and the second letter of each serial number now represents the issuing FRB and ranges from A through L. The last letter still can be anything but O or Z.
Although it sounds far-fetched to look for special meaning in the letters on dollar bills, they have real consequences when it comes to the criminal justice system in Turkey, where unlawful prosecutions were used as tools of intimidation, punishment and harassment by the regime. A striking example of this absurdity is the arrest of NASA physicist Serkan Gölge, a 38-year-old dual Turkish-US national. He was vacationing in his hometown in the Turkish border province of Hatay and was arrested after a failed coup in 2016 when he was at the airport to return to Houston. He was accused of being a CIA agent, and the evidence was a dollar bill.
In another example, 19-year-old student Yavuz Selim Yayla was arrested for having US dollar bills in his backpack on July 22, 2016 as he was on his way to spend time with his father, who lives in the US. The arrest was seen as an intimidation tactic against his father, Ahmet Sait Yayla, a leading terrorism expert who has investigated the Erdoğan government’s links to armed jihadist groups in Turkey. The father appeared as an expert witness at a US Congress hearing and delivered a statement critical of the Erdoğan government. He has frequently written articles documenting the extensive links of the regime to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A case file reviewed by Nordic Monitor in the unlawful prosecution of prominent professor, author and journalist Mehmet Hasan Altan, who often travels abroad, shows the blatant abuse of the criminal justice system in Turkey. Altan, who had been in pretrial detention from September 2016 to June 2018, was sentenced to aggravated life on dubious charges. He will return to prison if his conviction is upheld by an appeals court. In a landmark decision the European Court of Human Rights ruled Turkey had violated the freedom of expression of Altan and his colleague and journalist Şahin Alpay. The Turkish Constitutional Court ruled in January 2018 to release both Altan and Alpay, stressing that the order should be considered obligatory by all judicial institutions. Alpay was released in March 2018, but the authorities kept Altan in jail until June 2018.
During the search of Altan’s home in Istanbul’s Kadiköy district on September 10, 2016, counterterrorism police seized petty cash in dollars and euros the professor kept at home and classified one-dollar bills out of various denominations as criminal evidence against him. Two days later a judge ordered a criminal examination of the seized cash in ruling No. 2016/5722. In video footage that recorded some parts of the four-hour police search, Professor Altan was heard objecting to the police singling out several one dollar bills that were in his wallet and in his office desk drawer along with other larger denominations of US dollars as well as euros.
The still shots from the recording show police separating five dollar bills with serial numbers starting with the letters E,F,K,B and G that were found in Altan’s red wallet as well as in his desk drawer.
The indictment describes one dollar bills as evidence of a crime based on two sources, according to court papers examined by Nordic Monitor. One is published articles in pro-government media outlets. In Altan’s case the court includes two pro-government newspaper articles which alleged that one dollar bills were found in the possession of some putschists and constituted evidence linking them to Gülen. Not surprisingly, one article was published by the Sabah daily, a newspaper owned directly by Erdoğan’s family. In other words, the false story was first planted in newspapers owned and/or controlled by the government and was later entered into court documents as evidence as if it were fact.
The other source was the testimony of anonymous witnesses identified only by the initials of their first names. In a statement given to the prosecutors, two informants described as “M” and “Ö” who wanted to benefit from the repentance law by confessing their crimes alleged that one dollar bills showed signs of loyalty to Gülen, who supposedly handed them out to his followers. Based on two news articles and secret testimony, the prosecutor concluded that one dollar bills constituted clear evidence of terrorism.
In another absurd example, İbrahim Karayeğen, a 53-year-old veteran journalist who worked for 27 years in various positions in the journalism field, was detained at Istanbul Atatürk Airport on July 17, 2016 when he was about to leave on vacation. The police stopped him, found some cash in US currency on him and detained him. Among the so-called evidence was a dollar bill. The police statement said Karayeğen might have been a coup plotter based on news reporting that a dollar bill was used by putschists as a means of communication. Although he was released by the prosecutor at the first hearing, he was arrested in the second after another prosecutor issued a warrant for him based on the one-dollar-bill evidence.
Karayeğen was tortured for days in detention and put in solitary confinement in prison for over six months, another form of torture. His own testimony as well as medical reports clearly show the torture and ill-treatment of the journalist. The documents in his case file also reveal how doctors were pressured to cover up evidence of torture.
It would be a laughing matter if all this were simply a prank, but the Turkish criminal justice system entertains these absurd claims and accepts one dollar bills as evidence of terrorism under the guidance of the Erdoğan government. It also is quite revealing about the state of the rule of law in Turkey, which has effectively been suspended and the independent and impartial judiciary destroyed. The criminal justice system is flagrantly and systematically abused by the government to go after its critics, opponents and dissidents. Neither the prosecutors nor the judges appears to be ashamed to come to the ridiculous conclusion that the 12 billion one dollar bills that are currently in circulation can be labeled as evidence of terrorism and withstand judicial review.
Perhaps all this is part of a grand scheme on the part of the Erdoğan government to fan anti-US sentiment in Turkey by spreading false accusations based on the US currency.