KARACHI — A Turkish family is rushing out to a weekend protest in this populous Pakistani city; outside the Karachi Press Club, Turkish residents release doves as a sign of peace; 25 Turkish teachers plea for safety in Pakistan. These Turkish families have lived here for over two decades, teaching at a network of international schools led by Fethullah Gülen, a moderate Islamic cleric from Turkey, who currently lives in the United States.
In the last 16 months, 28 Gülen schools and colleges across Pakistan have been shut down under pressure from the government in Ankara. Staff members now face deportation and some say they are feeling unsafe in Pakistan for the first time.
In July 2016, a failed coup attempt sent shock waves through Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the coup on Gülen, his rival, and on Gülen's followers. In the coup's wake, Erdogan strengthened his grip on power, cracking down on journalists, academics and real or perceived critics. Some 50,000 people were arrested and most are still detained.
"Journalists, activists, teachers, media workers have been prosecuted on allegations of being linked to Fethullah Gülen or the Gülenist movement," explained Saroop Ijaz from Human Rights Watch Pakistan. "And there has been an absence of credible evidence to suggest widespread involvement or complicity of the people being prosecuted in Turkey by the present regime in the failed coup attempt," he said.
At its height, the Gülen network had about 2000 schools around the world, teaching Gülen's brand of Islam, which promotes charity and service. But critics say the schools also raised funds and increased the influence of Erdogan's rival in Turkey.
Exiled Islamic cleric Fetullag Gülen in Aug. 2016 — Photo: AlphaX News screenshot
After the attempted coup, Erdogan pressured foreign governments to shut down the Gülen schools and deport their staff. Pakistan complied and last November, 1,500 Turkish staff members were ordered to return to Turkey.
The wife of one teacher, identified as Ms. Gulmez, said she was afraid of what awaited them there. "There will be some kind of interrogation and maybe arrests because our names are on their list, as we also heard from our embassy," she said.
They put all of us in one basket, though we are not violent.
The teachers have appealed the Pakistani government's decision, stalling the deportation of 78 families, but they are awaiting final verdicts.
Gulmez maintains her innocence. "They put all of us in one basket because of the Gülen group, though we are not violent or mixed in this claimed coup," she said. Some 300 people from 78 Turkish families have registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency and have been granted asylum for a year, until next November.
But Yilmaz's husband, the teacher, says that has offered little safety. "We somehow felt safe in Pakistan, we lived here under the umbrella of the UNHCR," he said. But that changed on Sept. 17, when it was reported that some families had been abducted from their homes. Since then, he said, "the people, the families, the ladies, the kids they feel they are not in safe place anymore."
Mesut Kacmez, a deputy school principal, and his family were allegedly detained by the Pakistani security agencies in the eastern city of Lahore in September. Weeks later, they were deported to Turkey against their will.
Saroop Ijaz, a Human Rights Watch lawyer, says Pakistan has a duty to protect the teachers, instead of giving in to Turkey's demands. Pakistan must not "put its international credibility and its compliance with international obligations at risk" in order to carry out the Turkish government's political objectives, Ijaz says. "I think it's completely unacceptable and also a violation of international law."
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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