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[OPINION] Erdoğan unleashes criminal gangs on his critics in Turkey and abroad

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by Abdullah Bozkurt

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become accustomed to relying increasingly on testimonies and complaints filed by convicted felons, known criminals and questionable figures to launch frivolous legal cases against its opponents and critics in what is seen as a systematic and deliberate pattern of intimidation.

I have written about several such networks that are closely aligned with Erdoğan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), exposing how they conspired to persecute critics under the cover of legal action. These conspiracies have often been played out to the national audience, with the government-controlled media acting as a spin machine to further distort facts and truths. Two distinct traits can be detected among these groups: One is made up of radical Islamists who may be aligned or affiliated with armed jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS or Daesh by its Arabic acronym). The other comprises neo-nationalist and hard-core fascist groups such as the one led by Doğu Perinçek, who commands loyal factions in the intelligence apparatus, the army and the judiciary. Both are staunchly anti-Western and enjoy a close alliance with Erdoğan, who provides ironclad political cover for them to operate with total impunity.

The group that is the focus of this article is one set up in the western province of Izmir by an indicted 36-year-old criminal who runs a racketeering and organized crime syndicate. Muhammed Gömük has filed criminal complaints against dozens of senior US officials and Turkish critics. He leads the Association for Social Justice and Aid (Toplumsal Adalet ve Yardımlaşma Derneği in Turkish, or TAY-DER), a front NGO that was set up on June 15, 2016 and formally registered a month later with the support of senior government officials including some in the judiciary and police department. Gömük himself revealed how he receives financial and moral support from the government in an interview with the IHA news agency on June 2, 2016. To put it bluntly, his is nothing but a front shop for the Turkish intelligence organization (MIT) to manipulate public perception, steer criminal prosecutions and intimidate Erdoğan’s critics.

Gömük and his company were contracted by intelligence long before they ran into trouble with the law and were saved when they were jailed. Therefore, it is no surprise to see that TAY-DER is like a club of enterprising criminal figures. For example, former judge Asım Korkut, who is deputy chairman of the association, was convicted of accepting a bribe in 2009. He was put in pretrial detention for six months and later tried by the Fifth Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals and sentenced to four years along with two other suspects in the case. The sentence was reduced to 10 months for good behavior during the trial and other circumstances. TAY-DER General Secretary Doğan Şahin is a former military member who was tried on espionage charges in Izmir before Erdoğan moved in to hush up the case. Şahin was repeatedly reprimanded with disciplinary action by his superiors before he was caught up in a honey-pot scheme to pass confidential documents to female operatives.

The financier of TAY-DER is a businessman named Muzaffer Köse, who formally assumed the position of deputy chairman in June 2017. Köse, a native of Diyarbakir and former informant from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), was the head of an organized crime syndicate in Izmir province. His business involved the jewelry and precious metals trade on the books, but the real money came from organized crime activities such as blackmail, armed threats, unlawful asset seizure and extortion. He was arrested in November 2011 as a result of 13-month-long investigation and surveillance on his group’s activities. In October 2012, the 183-page indictment filed by public prosecutor Hüseyin Alaybay detailed 39 criminal acts committed by Köse, who was looking at possible jail time of over 500 years from all the offenses he was alleged to have committed. He was released after three years in jail when Erdoğan reshaped the judiciary to his liking in 2014 and released felons, convicts and suspects to make room for political prisoners.

Gömük and his front NGO have filed several complaints against US officials, which received the attention of the Turkish media and brought fame to the group. In December 2017 he submitted a criminal complaint against Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, demanding his arrest. Turkish prosecutor Birol Yargic in Izmir province took the complaint seriously, numbered the file 2017/24245 and forwarded it to the Ankara Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office on Dec. 6, 2017. The charges included five counts under anti-terror laws in the Turkish Penal Code, and the file was sent to the prosecutor’s office dealing with crimes against the constitutional order. He asked the court to send arrest warrants to the Turkish Army’s 2nd Division in the Southeast near Iraq and Syria where McGurk visits from time to time.

On March 27, 2018 a lawyer named Burak Bekiroğlu submitted another criminal complaint on behalf of TAY-DER, demanding the arrest of Preet Bharara, the former district attorney for the Southern District of New York who prosecuted Turkish state-bank Halkbank official Mehmet Hakan Atilla for violating sanctions on Iran, among other charges. Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab, who was the key suspect in 2913 corruption investigations in Turkey that incriminated Erdoğan and his family members, was indicted by Bharara, and he later became a cooperating government witness spilling the beans on Erdoğan and his corrupt associates. Bharara was abruptly fired by US President Donald Trump before the case ended in the conviction of the Turkish banker.

In the 118-page complaint, the TAY-DER lawyer also sought the arrest of Michael Rubin, an American Enterprise Institute scholar who is a leading critic of the Erdoğan regime, along with that of Zafer Akın, Faruk Taban, Kemal Öksüz and Emre Çelik, US nationals of Turkish descent who are seen as affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, the US-based cleric who has been a vocal critic of Erdoğan on corruption and the Turkish government’s aiding and abetting of armed jihadists globally. The lawyer seeks to have the court issue a judgment ordering the Justice Ministry to obtain an Interpol Red Notice for their arrest. The ludicrous charges include attempting to topple the Erdoğan government and to prevent Parliament from functioning, the usual claims that have landed almost 60,000 people in jail in the last one-and-a-half years alone in Turkey.

The track record of TAY-DER and how such far-fetched complaints were taken seriously by Erdoğan’s judiciary suggest we should not be taking these moves lightly and definitely not brushing them aside as the claims of lunatics. Well-organized machinery is behind these moves. The complaint filed by Gömük on Dec. 12, 2014 helped the Erdoğan government launch a frivolous case and arrest investigators and prosecutors who were involved in a major espionage case in 2011 in Izmir that uncovered the leaks of top secret Turkish military as well as classified NATO and FBI documents that were entrusted to NATO ally Turkey. I did examine the detailed evidentiary file from the court documents at the time and was shocked to see how many confidential intelligence and classified documents were obtained from Turkish officials including military officers who were caught in honey-traps and bribery schemes.

All the suspects involved in passing top-secret documents were saved by the Erdoğan government after the complaint from Gömük was filed with the prosecutor’s office in 2014. Prosecutors, judges and police investigators who uncovered this massive espionage ring were punished either by dismissal or arrest on trumped-up charges listed in Gömük’s complaint. This was payback for him in exchange for getting his conviction overturned with the help of the government. Gömük was arrested in 2011 on charges or running a racketeering and organized crime syndicate and for bribing judges and prosecutors to influence their decisions. He was a fixer for those who ran into trouble with the law. The wiretap documents reveal how he arranged money and prostitutes for judges, produced fake IDs and driver’s licenses, helped transfer inmates to the prisons of their choice, resolved debt collection problems and monitored outstanding warrants through a police chief on his payroll. To avoid detection and surveillance, he carried a signal jammer in his car.

The two-year-long investigation resulted in the detention of 11 suspects in a police operation on Oct. 2, 2012. Of these, two suspects, Gömük and a corrupt police chief named Ömer Aydin, were formally arrested. Ali Haydar Hakverdi, a lawyer at the time who later became a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), and Judge Yahya Kemal Akbaş were also among the suspects. In April 2013, public prosecutor Birol Çengil filed an indictment against the 11 suspects, asking the court to sentence them to various prison terms. Gömük as the leader of the gang was facing maximum jail time of 28 years, while the crooked police chief was facing 13 years if they were convicted. The cases of three judges who were on the payroll of the gang were referred to the Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK), which is tasked with investigating and prosecuting members of the judiciary.

Gömük and the other suspects were saved by the bell when Erdoğan found himself incriminated in corruption probes in December 2013 and launched massive dismissals and reassignments in the judiciary to escape his legal troubles. Then-Prime Minister and now President Erdoğan struck a deal with Perinçek and other neo-nationalists to pursue a purge in the judiciary in exchange for overturning convictions and dropping ongoing investigations into criminal syndicates. Gömük, who served nine months in pretrial detention, was one of thousands of suspects who were released by the Erdoğan regime, which was eager to enlist allies to ward off serious legal woes. Judge Akbaş, a suspect who worked with the gang, was even rewarded in June 2016 and appointed as the judge of a high court in Izmir province after he was cleared by the government-controlled HSK in March 2016. Prosecutor Çengil, who indicted the gang, and police chiefs Mehmet Ali Şevik and Özcan Karanfil, who investigated it, were all arrested along with thousands of other judges, prosecutors and police chiefs in Turkey.
The final hearing in the case was scheduled for July 18, 2016, and Gömük would likely be convicted and handed down a long prison sentence. But the prosecutor who was overseeing his case was arrested and the trial was postponed. Eventually Gömük and the other suspects were all acquitted, on Dec. 7, 2016, after new judges and prosecutors were assigned to the case by the Erdoğan government. The reason given was a lack of evidence, although there was a body of evidence including court-authorized wiretaps that proved how the gang operated and broke dozens of laws.

The gang is now paying its dues for running errands for the government in cooperation with Turkish intelligence. Metin Külünk, a confidant of Erdoğan and an Islamist lawmaker who led the armed Islamist Raiders (Akıncılar) in the early 1980s, was closely linked to Gömük. In fact, when TAY-DER filed the frivolous complaint against the US officials, he shared a copy of the complaint on his Twitter account, expressing his support. He said he conveyed TAY-DER’s work on Gülen to his boss Erdoğan and was asked to produce more publications to that effect. Gömük is also a member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdoğan and was a candidate to become an AKP nominee for a parliamentary seat in the 2015 national elections.

Part of TAY-DER’s mandate is to go after people who do not toe the line of the government narrative and to try to intimidate and dissuade them. For example, when the Constitutional Court ruled in a majority decision that the fundamental rights of jailed journalists Mehmet Altan and Şahin Alpay had been violated, Gömük filed a complaint in January 2018 against the 10 judges of the court who signed the decision. In October 2017 TAY-DER filed a complaint with the Izmir prosecutor’s office asking for the chief public prosecutor at the Supreme Court of Appeals to initiate closure proceedings against the Iyi (Good) Party led by Meral Akşener.

The decision to re-arrest businessman Ömer Faruk Kavurmacı, the son-in-law of former İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş, who was arrested in June 2017 following his release by an İstanbul court on May 4, 2017 after spending nine months in jail, was in fact based on a complaint filed by TAY-DER with the HSK judicial council. Kavurmacı, who had been jailed since Aug. 18, 2016 for a being member of the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), affiliated with the faith-based Gülen movement, was released on grounds of health. TAY-DER asked for the investigation of a judge who issued the release order and the doctor who prepared the medical report. The HSK launched a probe into the judge and Kavurmacı was rearrested. Topbaş was forced to step down from office due to pressure from Erdoğan.

In April 2017 TAY-DER filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office asking for a complete ban on the sale and publication of books written by exiled journalist Can Dündar. He also vowed to file similar motions against other critical writers and authors. In March 2017 TAY-DER petitioned a prosecutor for the identification and punishment of the Galatasaray general assembly for disseminating terrorist propaganda and aiding a terrorist organization after the Galatasaray Sports Club declined to expel of two of its famous former players, Hakan Şükür and Arif Erdem. The petition came after a statement by pro-government journalist Cem Küçük during a TV program that intelligence agency MİT had started an investigation into the vote and that all the members of the Galatasaray general assembly would face terror charges.

Şükür, a one-time a national hero, played for Turkey 112 times and scored 51 international goals. He joined Galatasaray in 1992 and was part of their UEFA Cup-winning team in 2000. He had spells with Torino (in 1995) and later with Inter Milan, Parma and the Blackburn Rovers. He scored the fastest-ever World Cup goal after 11 seconds against South Korea in 2002. After retiring in 2007 he was an AKP deputy for two years starting in 2011. He faced the wrath of Erdoğan when he resigned from the party in protest of government policies, resulting in farcical indictments against him on false charges of terrorism. His assets were seized in Turkey, and he had to move to the US to escape false imprisonment. Following TAY-DER’s motion and the government reaction to Galatasaray’s initial decision to refuse to expel him, the board of the Galatasaray Sports Club hastily held an extraordinary meeting to expel both Şükür and Erdem, who are seen as close to Gülen.

Gömük would be a small-time criminal who should not deserve any attention if it were not for the company he keeps in the backyard of top neo-nationalist Perinçek. The fact that he was featured on A Haber, a news network owned by the Erdoğan family, in 2014 and was supported by Turkish intelligence and Erdoğan’s office suggests we should take him seriously for what he represents: a shadowy network behind the curtains. He is a pawn used by dangerous people nested in the government with huge resources, a wide network and political and judicial cover. When I highlighted his name and his background on my Twitter account after his complaint against McGurk, Gömük took aim at me as well. He even posted a death threat publicly on Twitter on Dec. 7, 2017 that said: “Our Turkish brothers in Sweden, if you see this American and Gülenist coward, stateless traitor kid, his murder is halal [allowed].”

My response to those who hold his leash is this: I won’t be intimidated by your threats, and I refuse to be cowed into silence. I will continue to expose the scumbags involved in Erdoğan’s clandestine network of neo-nationalists and radical Islamists who have done Turkey a huge disservice first and foremost and also pose a grave threat to allies and partners with this abhorrent scheming and dealing. Hopefully one day all these people will be held accountable and punished to the fullest extent of the law when the rule of law eventually is restored in Turkey.

Until then, I will continue to fight back against smears, threats and injustices in Turkey with the best tool I have: my pen.

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