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Turkish Cypriots shaken by sex tapes

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Cevheri Güven

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC), a self-proclaimed state in the predominantly Turkish side of Cyprus, has recently been the scene of sex tapes of politicians. The release of a tape allegedly of Prime Minister Ersan Saner just a day after the arrest of Halil Falyalı, arguably the most notorious mob boss on the island, raised suspicions about Falyalı’s potential links to the sex tape. Yet, another mafia leader quickly entered the scene. Sedat Peker, who lives in exile in Dubai due to tensions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced that he was the one who released the tape. Peker said he has taken possession of Falyalı’s archive on politicians.

For the last two years Turkish Cypriots have been watching with concern as Erdoğan reshaped their political landscape entirely. The mafia’s involvement in politics, exposed with the sex tapes, gives clues to a large network that stretches all the way to Erdoğan’s palace.

Falyalı, who allegedly possesses a sizeable sex tape archive, is the owner of a billion-dollar empire that includes hotels, casinos and virtual betting websites. He is the target of money laundering and drug trafficking litigation in the US. In docket number 15MJ371 in the US District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia, investigated by special agent Timothy D. McGrath, the case was terminated in March 2016, and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was involved as a party in it.

On a US wanted list and thus unable to leave Cyprus, Falyalı is still highly influential on the Turkish side of the Mediterranean island. He is seen in dozens of pictures with politicians, including President Ersin Tatar and Prime Minister Saner. Despite his fame on the island, he was relatively unknown in Turkey until his name was recently brought up by Peker.

In the past, Peker worked to do Erdoğan’s bidding and did not hesitate to threaten violence to silence critics. He left Turkey in early 2020, following a falling out with Erdoğan’s son-in-law and then-Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, and as it later turned out, right before an impending arrest warrant. Peker now lives in the United Arab Emirates and has been making bombshell revelations that have rocked Erdoğan’s government, especially regarding Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu.

Since Peker announced that Cyprus had become a home base for drug shipments to the Middle East and that Falyalı was in charge of the operation, all eyes have been on the Turkish-Cypriot business mogul. According to Peker, Falyalı has secretly recorded sexual affairs of almost all the politicians he has hosted in his luxurious hotels and casinos on the island. One of these political figures was Erkam Yıldırım, the son of close Erdoğan associate and former prime minister Binali Yıldırım. Peker claimed that Erkam Yıldırım’s suspiciously frequent trips to South America were aimed at coordinating the cocaine trafficking on Falyalı’s behalf. He said Falyalı had to delegate these affairs as he was unable to leave Cyprus due to an outstanding US warrant.

Amid the curiosity as to which politicians could have been entangled in Falyalı’s sex tape archive that Peker was referring to, Falyalı in an unexpected development was arrested. An employee from Falyalı’s Les Ambassadeurs Hotel and Casino filed criminal complaints against him and executives of the hotel, alleging that he was abducted, tortured and coerced into illicit affairs. At first, the police did not detain Falyalı but began the operation by detaining others whose names were involved. On Oct. 15 Falyalı turned himself in. Cypriot sources who spoke to Turkish Minute say that before doing so, Falyalı first obtained a guarantee that he would not be arrested, using his ties to the Turkish Cypriot prime minister and president. Yet, things did not turn out as expected with the judiciary.

Pınar Barut, a prominent journalist on the island, said: “The justice system in Cyprus is not as politically taken over as it is in Turkey. We can still talk of a certain judicial independence.”

A few hours after Falyalı’s arrest, a sex tape allegedly belonging to Prime Minister Saner began circulating in WhatsApp groups and on some Facebook accounts. In the evening mob boss Peker claimed that he had taken possession of Falyalı’s sex tape archive. Journalist Erk Acarer, who has been in close contact with Peker for a while now, demanded President Tatar’s resignation. Shortly afterwards, Peker announced on his backup Twitter account @delicavus_nth that he was about to release a video of President Tatar. The video featured Tatar and a woman named Pınar Gökmen, and it was followed by other videos of Tözun Tunalı, an executive of governing coalition member the Democratic Party, of Özgü Kaya, the son of a mayor, and of a lower ranking bureaucrat.

The political tensions in Cyprus became exacerbated after Turkey’s apparent involvement, and Prime Minister Saner announced that he would not be a candidate at his party’s convention on Oct. 31. His party, the National Unity Party (UBP), remains the most powerful in the political landscape, and the next chairman will also become the prime minister of the coalition government to be set up after the convention.

Erdoğan’s role in Saner’s election 

Journalist Barut says Turkey has lately been directly interfering with Cypriot politics and that the mafia-linked controversy is part of this interference. 

In the presidential election of October 2020, Erdoğan openly sided with Ersin Tatar against popular incumbent Mustafa Akıncı, wielding Turkey’s economic and political influence by sending his vice president, Fuat Oktay, to campaign on the island. The interference resulted in Tatar’s narrow victory against Akıncı, who was initially seen as the voters’ favorite. Akıncı is an advocate of settlement of the conflict with Greek Cypriots through dialogue on international diplomatic platforms, while the Erdoğan-backed Tatar favors a two-state solution.

After Tatar’s election as president, Erdoğan also got involved in naming Tatar’s replacement as the new head of the UBP. At the party convention Faiz Sucuoğlu and Hasan Toçay, who were able to advance to the second round, both mysteriously withdrew their candidacy. Rumor had it that it was due to Erdoğan’s pressure. The development paved the way for the uncontested election of Saner, who normally stood no chance and had received very few votes in the first round.

According to Barut, this was an open intervention on Ankara’s part.

“Faiz Sucuoğlu had a comfortable lead. Ankara stepped in, and Ersan Saner was parachuted into leadership,” Barut said. “Therefore Prime Minister Saner and President Ersin Tatar are in fact appointees rather than elected officials. Northern Cyprus has become subjugated to Turkey’s direct rule. There is an appearance of democratic elections; yet every election suffers interference, shaping both the government and the opposition.”

There are allegations that the Turkish interference in Turkish Cypriot politics has to do with money laundering and drug trafficking. Barut points out that the Turkish state in northern Cyprus is not recognized by any country other than Turkey and that this lack of international recognition turns the territory into a blind spot for international law in which criminals can easily hide and conduct their gambling and drug businesses.

Drug and black money haven

Last week Turkey was relegated to the gray list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization established to combat money laundering, due to its failure to prevent money laundering and the financing of terrorism. Over the past 10 years the Erdoğan government has passed significant legislation to facilitate the influx of cash from unknown sources. Drug trafficking has been a particularly recurring theme for the last two years. In October 2020 the Colombian police seized five tons of cocaine in a vessel bound for Turkey. It was a first for the country, which traditionally was a transit route for drugs originating from Afghanistan. The following days saw similar interceptions of shipments of cocaine bound for Turkey from several countries.

Mob boss Peker claims that Falyalı, along with Erkam Yıldırım, was in charge of the trafficking. According to him, the incoming cocaine was divided up at a luxury yacht marina owned by former Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar and was then shipped to the Middle East in luxury yachts owned by rich Arabs. Peker said cocaine has a higher selling price in the region and that is why Falyalı chose to go for this market where he has now become a leading supplier.

Besides the drug trafficking, the Turkish side of Cyprus is also known as a gambling haven. When Turkey officially banned gambling in 1998, the entire sector moved to the island. According to data released by the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK), illegal gambling is a $5 billion industry in Turkey and its epicenter is Cyprus. The amount is gigantic for northern Cyprus, which has a population of some 382,000 people. Falyalı is the uncontested leader of the sector. When Falyalı’s partner Veysel Şahin was arrested in Turkey in 2017, the Turkish court had estimated his fortune at $789 million. After Şahin’s arrest, Falyalı’s dominance in the sector became crystal clear. Şahin, who is still imprisoned in Turkey, blames Falyalı for the tipoff that led to his arrest.

Falyalı had previously submitted an unsuccessful bid of 100 million pounds to purchase English Premier League team Fulham. While he failed to conclude the purchase, his offer, which amounts to one-sixteenth of the northern Cypriot GDP, and which he was willing to sacrifice solely for his passion for football, gives a vague idea about the size of his fortune.

Erdoğan trying to turn the scandal to his advantage

As the sex tape controversy turned into a mafia-related reckoning, it continues to be debated as a matter of domestic politics as well. Saner, who following the release of the tape announced he was stepping down as prime minister, blamed Sucuoğlu, his rival within his party, for the tape. Sucuoğlu, who has strongly denied the accusation, now has an advantage for the UBP leadership. Yet at the same time, he is seen as the last person the Erdoğan administration would consider working with.

Barut believes the fact that Saner targeted Sucuoğlu as he stepped down has to do with the latter’s relatively more independent posture.

“No one in Cyprus is talking about the mafia. The footage was already circulating in WhatsApp groups before Peker released it. By taking responsibility for the video Peker is trying to win his confrontation with Falyalı. While Turkish public opinion debates it as a mafia issue, in Cyprus it is a matter of domestic politics. Saner and his entourage are always trying to undermine Sucuoğlu because he is almost certainly going to win the party convention. But if Sucuoğlu’s name becomes tainted with the sex tape scandal, thereby eliminating his chances, it would clear the path for Hasan Taçoy’s election.”

Meanwhile, Falyalı, who was under arrest, has been taken out of prison and hospitalized. Some have claimed that it has happened due to his pressure on politicians, while others believe this has been orchestrated by Turkish Interior Minister Soylu.

Peker had claimed that Soylu was the one shielding Falyalı’s crime network in Turkey. When asked about it, Barut said this would complicate the scene.

“If Soylu is on Falyalı’s side, it means that Peker has killed two birds with one stone. For Peker, both Soylu and Falyalı are foes, and now he has settled the score with both.”

The UBP convention, which will be decisive for the new government in northern Cyprus, is scheduled for Oct. 30-31. While Sucuoğlu remains the favorite, the political landscape on the island is subject to abrupt changes that occur on an almost daily basis.

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