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[INTERVIEW] ‘Turkish police are rotten to the core because Turkey is’

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Bünyamin Tekin

Members of the Turkish police force were no saints before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power. The institution was tainted by allegations of bribery and ties to the mafia. However, the events that marked a turning point for the rule of law in Turkey in the last decade have transformed its crime fighters into a state-of-the-art crime syndicate.

That’s according to İsmail Öztürk, a former high-ranking police officer who was previously deputy chief of the Ankara Police Department and had more than two decades of experience fighting organized crime.

Two days ago Turkish nationalist opposition leader Meral Akşener made a claim that would cause a major scandal in any country with a reasonable public discourse.

She claimed that some high-ranking police chiefs were involved in prostitution.

They didn’t take bribes from criminals.

They were the criminals.

Before its drive to become a member of the European Union, Turkey was a flawed democracy, and allegations of rampant torture of detainees in police custody and bribery were rife.

In a scandal in 1996 a fugitive mafia boss and a senior police official were killed and an MP was wounded when the car they were traveling in crashed near the town of Susurluk.

Called the Susurluk incident, the fatal car crash exposed links between state officials and organized crime bosses, which led to the resignation of then-Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar. Ağar was later sentenced to five years in prison over his role in the scandal.

However, the deep-seated corruption in today’s police force is a hundred times worse than in the 1990s, according to Öztürk.

“I’m not exaggerating,” says Öztürk. “I fought against organized crime for many years. This is my informed observation.”

İsmail Öztürk, a retired police chief, worked in various departments of the Turkish police for 24 years. He is an expert on smuggling and organized crime. He has written books on organized crime and interrogation techniques and taught these courses for 10 years in police and judicial training academies. He has participated in many international projects in his field as an expert and trainer and currently lives abroad.

On Wednesday 39 police officers were arrested in İstanbul, accused of accepting bribes.

The arrests were part of a larger operation in which 46 officers were initially detained. The police chief of İstanbul, Zafer Aktaş, ordered the suspension of the officers after the arrests.

The action followed a tip-off about corrupt practices between the traffic police and local dredging companies. The investigation revealed that certain trucks that did not have proper documentation and whose loads exceeded legal limits were not being inspected by the police.

A scheme to manage the bribes came to light, involving a parking lot owner who was responsible for collecting and distributing the bribes to the traffic teams involved to ensure the unimpeded passage of the companies’ trucks at police checkpoints.

The extent of the bribery scandal was far-reaching: There is evidence that 62 civilians offered bribes on 67 different occasions in 2022 and 2023 and that 46 police officers accepted them.

“This is nothing but window dressing,” said Öztürk. “Bribes accepted by traffic teams are just a drop in the bucket. The government is conducting these superficial operations to make the outside world believe that it is really fighting corruption.”

According to Öztürk, wherever there is drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution, illegal gambling or arms dealing, the police get their share of the spoils.

“When you have no rule of law or accountability, law enforcement officers who get easy money through bribes start to wonder. ‘They must be making much more money if they are bribing me so generously. Why shouldn’t I do this business myself?” Öztürk says.

This is the story of the higher echelons of the Turkish state, including President Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who initially received kickbacks from government-run tenders.

As they gained more and more power and the bribes were no longer enough, they set up front companies that on paper were run by their cronies but in reality belonged to themselves.

Former Erdoğan confidant Ali Yeşildağ explained in May in a series of explosive revelations how the Erdoğan family made hundreds of billions of dollars in ill-gotten gains through these front companies.

How did it come to this?

“In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood,” writes French philosopher Guy Debord in his seminal work “The Society of the Spectacle.”

The world of Turks was truly turned on its head when they woke up on December 17, 2013 to the news of police raids in İstanbul and the arrest of the sons of three then-ministers of the ruling AKP, Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, the director of a state-owned bank, a district mayor and many others.

The probe implicated, among others, the family members of four cabinet ministers as well as the children of then-prime minister and current President Erdoğan.

Erdoğan, officials from the ruling AKP and the pro-government media described the investigation as “an attempt to overthrow the government.”

Dismissing the investigation as a conspiracy against his government by the Gülen movement, a group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan designated the faith-based movement as a terrorist organization and began to target its members.

Despite the scandal resulting in the resignation of the four cabinet members, the investigation was dropped after prosecutors and police chiefs were removed from the case.

Under Erdoğan’s direction, thousands, including many prosecutors, judges and police officers involved in the investigation, were locked up.

“Erdoğan and the AKP members started to become reckless with their corrupt practices in the 2010s after they believed Turkey’s secular old guard was finally defeated and their rule would no longer be challenged,” Öztürk says.

Therefore, they started to make more mistakes that put them in the police’s sights,” Öztürk adds, revealing that before the December 2013 raids over the graft probe and Erdoğan’s subsequent response, there were more than 200 corruption investigations across the country involving people close to Erdoğan or the AKP.

“All of these investigations were closed, and the police chiefs who led them were dismissed,” says Öztürk.

“Today’s deep-seated corruption is one of the consequences of those probes being shut down.”

Erdoğan cracked down on the police and the judiciary to survive the corruption allegations substantiated by seemingly insurmountable evidence, and his success in purging state institutions paralyzed once-effective checks and balances, turning the country into an “electoral autocracy” from the flawed democracy it once was.

A coup attempt in 2016 added fuel to the fire, and Turkey’s strong man started to run roughshod over opponents as he cracked down on civil society this time as well as completely purging state institutions.

The world was turned on its head, and the truth was nothing more than a moment of falsehood.

Turkey’s decline into autocracy has had far-reaching consequences.

The country was ranked 117th among 142 countries in the rule of law index published by the World Justice Project (WJP) in October.

This ranking comes at a time when the Turkish judiciary has been shaken by allegations of corruption and bribery.

İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor İsmail Uçar last month sent a letter to the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) exposing widespread corruption in Turkey’s judicial system.

In the Oct. 6 letter Uçar detailed allegations of bribery, nepotism and other irregularities in the judiciary, which faces widespread criticism for its perceived lack of independence. Critics accuse President Erdoğan of exerting control over the judiciary and of establishing one-man rule in the country.

Many say there is no longer a separation of powers in Turkey and that members of the judiciary are under the control of the government and cannot make judgments based on law.

“The fish rots from the head down,” quips Öztürk.

“When bureaucrats and public servants see their leaders getting away with corruption and cracking down on those who try to enforce the law, they come to the realization that it’s a free game and they can get rich by abusing their power.”

Police aid and abet murder

In January of this year, two police officers were arrested for aiding and abetting the murder of the former president of the Grey Wolves, the far-right youth organization of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Sinan Ateş, an academic and former head of the Grey Wolves, was fatally shot in Ankara on December 30, 2022. Ateş, who was leaving an apartment in Kızılırmak with a friend when they were attacked by two men on motorcycles, was critically injured by a bullet to the head and pronounced dead shortly after being taken to a hospital.

Among the arrestees over the murder were Vedat Balkaya, who was driving the motorcycle during the attack, and the MHP’s provincial board member in İstanbul, Ufuk Köktürk.

Murat Can Çolak and Aşkın Mert Gelenbey, members of the special forces police, were arrested on charges of aiding and abetting the murder.

The officers were accused of transporting Eray Özyağcı, who fired the gun during the attack, from İstanbul to Ankara in a van.

In October, a police chief was arrested for his involvement in the murder. He is accused of passing on important information about Ateş’s whereabouts to a leader of the Grey Wolves, who was also involved in the murder.

“What has been made public in the Sinan Ateş murder case is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Öztürk. “Nowadays, the mafia can murder with impunity in Turkey, and many unsolved murders are actually the result of direct police involvement in the case, as was the case with Ateş’s murder,” he claims.

Reign of mafia

Turkey has taken five steps back and was ranked 101st among 180 countries with a score of 36 out of 100, the lowest in the past 10 years, in the 2022 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) released by Transparency International.

The CPI ranks countries and territories based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be. A country or territory’s score indicates the perceived level of public sector corruption on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).

According to the index, Turkey, which was ranked 96th in 2021 with a score of 38, has lost two points and was ranked the same as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Serbia, Peru, Panama, Kazakhstan, Ecuador and Albania in 2022.

The country has dropped 48 places in the index since 2013, when it scored 50 points and was ranked 53rd.

Transparency International’s study can be considered proof that the Turkey’s backsliding started in 2013.

For Öztürk, “the lawlessness” that started after 2013 peaked during the tenure of former interior minister Süleyman Soylu.

Soylu was appointed as interior minister shortly after a coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016. He was one of the architects of the massive purge and the arrest of thousands of non-loyalist citizens on bogus terrorism or coup charges.

During Soylu’s time in office Turkey faced allegations of involvement in international drug trafficking, primarily driven by Turkish mob boss Sedat Peker. In a series of dramatic videos in 2021, Peker accused Soylu and other high-ranking officials of protecting and facilitating cocaine trafficking networks.

In early August the most comprehensive decree on police chiefs to date was published in the Official Gazette, resulting in the reassignment of 52 high-ranking police chiefs, while 24 were moved to less active roles. The reassignment of high-ranking police officers close to Soylu was interpreted as a “partial purge.”

Ayhan Bora Kaplan, a mob boss known for his alleged close ties to Soylu, was arrested in September, following which the former minister’s alleged links to mafia groups again came to public attention.

The arrest of Kaplan, who faces charges including “forming a criminal organization,” “intentional injury,” “armed robbery,” “deprivation of liberty” and “torture” and others followed significant changes in the police force after Soylu was removed from the post of interior minister.

President Erdoğan replaced Soylu with Yerlikaya in the new cabinet he announced in June following his re-election in the presidential election in May.

Soylu was elected to parliament in the May general election as an AKP lawmaker and enjoys parliamentary immunity.

During his time as interior minister, in 2018, Soylu called on Turkish police to “break the legs of drug dealers” when they see them in the vicinity of a school.

“Such words were coming out of a man who actually facilitated drug trafficking in the country,” Öztürk says.

During Soylu’s time as interior minister, in 2021, global money-laundering watchdog the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) put Turkey on its grey list of countries under increased monitoring due to strategic deficiencies in their regimes to combat money laundering and terrorist financing in late 2021.

Soylu, at the time, slammed the FATF decision to place Turkey under increased monitoring, saying the move aimed to punish Turkey “for taking action against the LGBT community.”

Öztürk says the mock operations supposedly targeting corrupt police and mafia today are just efforts by Erdoğan’s government to take the country off the grey list amid broader economic challenges in Turkey, including inflation and depreciation of the Turkish lira.

The country suffered a lira crash in 2021 that set prices spiraling by 85 percent during a year when Erdoğan forced the central bank to slash the key interest rate.

The cost of living crisis pushed Erdoğan into his first election runoff in May. He turned to Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek and a handful of other market-friendly figures to right the economy after winning the vote.

According to observers, the recent crackdown and scrutiny over money laundering and other criminal activities stem from Turkey’s desire to assert market-friendly policies.

“They don’t mean it,” says Öztürk, referring to the crackdown.

“Anyone who is familiar with the current situation in Turkey can see that from a distance. They only pretend to be fighting corruption, but in reality they are only punishing the small crooks,” complains Öztürk.

“If you name any industry in Turkey today, you will find that the mafia is operating there to make illegal profits,” he emphasizes.

“Even the simplest [retail] trade, such as bread, is not without mafia involvement. Markets and bakeries are blackmailed and conditions are dictated to them as to how they get their supplies,” says Öztürk.

“Fruits and vegetables, from farm to table, are expensive because the middleman is the mafia,” he states.

“Yes, the Turkish police are rotten to the core because Turkey is.”

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