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[OPINION] Arms smuggler IHH activists filling government jobs in Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) is seen with İHH President Bülent Yıldırım (R) and Sedat Peker, a convicted gang leader during a wedding ceremony İn İstanbul, in 2015.

by Abdullah Bozkurt
The network of Turkey’s highly controversial charity group the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri ve İnsani Yardım Vakfı, or IHH in Turkish), a pro-government Islamist organization that was accused of smuggling arms to al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists in Syria and Libya, acts as a revolving door for transferring religious fanatics and zealots into government jobs with the help of the Turkish president’s family enterprise.

Abdullah Bozkurt

The leaked emails of Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Turkey’s top Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and current energy minister, have provided clues as to how the IHH was cited as a strong reference when it came to grooming candidates to take positions in the government. In an email dated Nov. 10, 2015, İsmail Emanet, a close buddy of Turkish President Erdoğan’s son Bilal, sent the CVs of five candidates to Albayrak for his review with a note saying  that they were selected to become Russia experts as part of a program run by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA), an NGO managed by Erdoğan’s family. Emanet is president of TÜGVA, while Bilal and his friends serve on the advisory board.

One candidate recommended by Emanet was 21-year old Mücahit Türk, who he says came from an IHH background. Mücahit’s mother Fatma Türk, also listed as a reference in the note, is the chairwoman of the IHH’s women’s branches and actively campaigns across Turkey for President Erdoğan and the IHH. In his own note attached to the recommendation, Emanet told Albayrak that the student was very much interested in Russia, had developed a strong sense of religious obligation due his upbringing by his mother and was deserving of being selected.

The irony is that the IHH was flagged by Russia as the organization that smuggled arms to jihadist groups in Syria, according to intelligence documents submitted to the UN Security Council on Feb. 10, 2016. The document even furnished the license plate numbers of trucks dispatched by the IHH loaded with arms and supplies bound for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups including the Nusra Front. Yet, the Turkish president’s family foundation cleared a candidate with a strong IHH background for Berat Albayrak to make him an expert on Russia. Go figure.

By the way, this was not the only reference to the IHH in thousands of emails leaked from the private Gmail and Yahoo accounts of Erdoğan’s son-in-law Albayrak, who is now effectively running the government as the shadow prime minister with his father-in-law Erdoğan. In another email dated June 20, 2011, Mehmet Muş, who is now the deputy chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliamentary group, recommends a man for the position of project manager based partly on his work as a volunteer at the IHH. Muş is a key henchman for Albayrak in moving bills through Parliament and often asks for Albayrak’s approval for crucial legislation before the government even submits it to Parliament.

The survey of emails concludes that Albayrak even looked for the IHH seal for candidates he selected for teaching or administrative positions in schools run by the Nun Education and Culture Foundation (Nun Eğitim ve Kültür Vakfı in Turkish), an institution that was set up by Albayrak, his wife and Erdoğan’s eldest daughter Esra Erdoğan, his brother Serhat and other associates on Oct. 3, 2014. The foundation receives generous support from the government and was provided with properties and land in prime real estate neighborhoods. It is clear that Erdoğan’s family is closely aligned with the radical IHH group.

The emails also showed that Turkish President Erdoğan’s daily itinerary was regularly forwarded to his son-in-law. It revealed that Erdoğan privately received IHH head Bülent Yıldırım on Jan. 16, 2016, the same day he met with Melih Ecertaş, the chairman of the youth branches for the governing AKP. Interestingly, both Yıldırım and Ecertaş were driving forces behind anti-Israel rallies last weekend in Istanbul and other provinces over Israel’s security measures around the al-Aqsa mosque. When IHH head Yıldırım was delivering a fiery speech in İstanbul’s Taksim Square during which he called for the destruction of Israel, on July 21, 2017, Albayrak’s man and TÜGVA President Emanet also appeared to whip up the crowds with his own speech. As Emanet finished delivering his remarks, the crowd was cheering for Hamas, urging members of Hamas to strike Israel.

The close links between the IHH and Erdoğan’s government and family enterprise was the main reason why the criminal investigations and prosecutions of IHH members as part of al-Qaeda and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) probes were quickly hushed up. An investigation by the prosecutor in Van into a Turkish cell for al-Qaeda found that İbrahim Şen, a top al-Qaeda operative who was jailed at Guantanamo until 2005 before he was turned over to Turkey, his brother Abdurrahman Şen and others were sending arms, supplies and funds to al-Qaeda groups in Syria with the help of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT), which is run by Erdoğan’s close confidante Hakan Fidan, another Islamist.

The investigation led to the IHH when wiretaps and surveillance revealed that the Kayseri and Kilis branches of the IHH were sending funds and medical and household supplies to jihadists in Syria. Investigators discovered that Şen enlisted the help of the IHH when he wanted to conceal illegal shipments transported to jihadists. The prosecutor’s conclusion was that these NGOs deliberately took part in this scheme knowing full well what they were into. It was not random or individual participation but rather a deliberate scheme with the knowledge of IHH managers.

Three people identified by the police as partners with Şen in smuggling goods to Syria were Ömer Faruk Aksebzeci (worked out of the IHH Kayseri branch), Recep Çamdalı (member of the IHH’s Kayseri branch) and İbrahim Halil İlgi (working out of the IHH Kilis branch). Fearing that the expansion of the probe could lead to senior figures in the IHH and expose the links to his government, Erdoğan quickly moved to quash it. The government dismissed and later arrested all police chiefs and prosecutors who uncovered the IHH’s clandestine dealings with jihadist groups.

Another document revealed from the authenticated email communications of Erdoğan’s son-in-law also implicated the IHH in arming Libyan factions. The secret document tells the tale of how the owner of a bankrupt sea shipping and container company asked for compensation from the Turkish government for damage his ship sustained while transporting arms between Libyan ports at the order of Turkish authorities in Ankara in 2011. The document revealed all the details of a Turkish government-approved arms shipment to rebels in a ship contracted by the IHH. Disturbed by this expose and my writings, IHH lawyers brought two lawsuits against Twitter in a Turkish court, asking the judge to order the removal of my postings on the micro-blogging site. The partisan judge agreed without even seeking my defense or that of Twitter. No wonder some 50 percent of all removal requests on Twitter come from a single country: Turkey.

Erdoğan may be able to cover his tracks in the Turkish judiciary, which he tightly controls after dismissing or arresting one-third of all judges and prosecutors in a year’s time. But it has proven to be difficult to do so in other countries and in international organizations. In a letter dated March 9, 2016, a UN Security Council panel of experts concluded that arms shipments to Libya had been taking place mainly from Turkey. The UN experts traced weapons in Libya to Turkish companies and discovered that the Turkish government deliberately tried to mislead the investigation into a Turkish ship carrying arms destined for Libyan Islamist factions. The ship, the Haddad 1, registered in Bolivia, was seized in September 2015 by the Greek coast guard while transporting a concealed arms shipment from Turkey to Libya.

The Erdoğan government has dismissed over 150,000 people from government jobs in the last year alone without any effective administrative or judicial reviews by simply declaring them terrorists in executive orders issued under emergency rule. The dismissed employees are composed of critics of the Erdoğan government, mainly members of the Gülen movement, and they have nothing to do with terrorism at all. This purge, unprecedented in Turkey’s history, is aimed at making room for new recruits. It is clear that the Erdoğan regime has been hiding its efforts to overhaul Turkey’s civil service by replacing merit and qualification-based hiring in government jobs with ideology that is based on Islamist activism and radical views.

If the IHH continues to fill positions in the Turkish government with a new generation of Islamists including radical ones, then Turkey’s civil service will be a very hostile, xenophobic and ideology-driven machine, one that may be hard to reform even if the Erdoğan regime is ousted from power one day. Perhaps the young Russia expert recommended by the IHH to Albayrak will turn out to be a Turkish ambassador in Moscow in a decade. Imagine that. How fun would that be.

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