Exactly four years ago today, the Turkish government was caught making an illegal arms transfer to jihadist groups in Syria under a scheme that was off the book and unauthorized and in which weapons were secretly transported in trucks by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
A tractor-trailer full of heavy arms was intercepted by security forces on Jan. 1, 2014 at 16.40 hours near the Turkish village of Torun on the highway between the towns of Kırıkhan and Reyhanlı in the southeastern province of Hatay, near the Syrian border. A Turkish prosecutor issued a search and seizure warrant after he was informed by the gendarmerie that an intelligence tip was received at 16.00 hours indicating that a truck full of arms and an escort car were on their way to cross the Turkish-Syrian border. The tip was very specific and even provided license plate numbers 06 BR 8860 and 31 Y 5060.
The gendarmerie immediately informed the prosecutors, seeking authorization to intervene, which was granted. Yaşar Kavalcıoğlu, the chief public prosecutor of Kırıkhan, and Yunus Alkan, the public prosecutor, were both on the scene to oversee the search and seizure. Yet they were prevented from executing the warrant by MIT agents who were accompanying the truck in a Fiat Linea car. They neither showed their IDs nor provided official papers to prove they were authorized to transport the arms. A dispute between the MİT agents and the gendarmes erupted when the prosecutors ordered the gendarmes to open the container in the trailer.
More MIT agents were dispatched to the scene, and Yener Akbaydar, the regional head of MIT in Hatay, also arrived to talk to the prosecutors. The gendarmes told Kavalcıoğlu that the MİT agents had tried to convince them to switch the truck’s trailer with an empty one and had threatened a fight after the gendarmes declined. Kavalcıoğlu then stated that he phoned Özcan Şişman, the provincial public prosecutor whose jurisdiction includes terrorism cases and asked if he could come and take over the investigation as it was under his jurisdiction.
Şişman, based in Adana province, where the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is located, at Incirlik Air Base, rushed to the scene to intervene, but the gendarmes and police were unlawfully ordered by Adana Governor Celalettin Lekesiz to leave the scene. Lekesiz, an agent of the executive branch, had no authority to issue orders to forces who were assigned to the prosecutors in the execution of a warrant, yet he was told to do so by Erdogan government officials in Ankara. As a result, the prosecutors were left alone with no force to back them up against the MIT agents and had to leave the crime scene under threat, unable to execute the search warrant and investigate the contents of the truck.
In the meantime, Süleyman Bağrıyanık, the chief public prosecutor in Adana province, was repeatedly being called by Kenan İpek, then-undersecretary of the Justice Ministry, telling him to sack the prosecutors on the ground and release the truck and MIT agents. When Bağrıyanık responded that this was a judicial matter and that under the law the executive branch cannot intervene in the independent judiciary, he was threatened with negative consequences. Bağrıyanık was later called by then-Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ, who asked him to drop the warrant. Stating that Interior Minister Efkan Ala and the head of MIT, Hakan Fidan, were sitting next to him as he spoke on the phone and that they assured him there were no arms in the cargo of the intercepted truck, Bozdağ tried to convince Bağrıyanık to let the case go away quietly.
The courageous prosecutor Bağrıyanık did not yield to this intense pressure from the government and decided to stand by the prosecutors who were investigating the truck. But they were powerless after the military and police units were pressured to exit the scene. However, Bağrıyanık did not let this unlawful act, which was a clear breach of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) stand, and asked public prosecutor Aziz Takçı on Jan. 13, 2014 to do what was required under the law and charge the government officials who thwarted the investigation in defiance of the law. After investigating the facts, Takçı issued decision No.2014/4 as part of the criminal probe under case file No.2014/2, stating that the local officials who left the crime scene despite explicit orders from the investigating prosecutors violated several laws including dereliction of duty and charged them under the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) and in accordance with the CMK.
Moreover, public prosecutor Takçı charged İpek, the Justice Ministry’s number two, with five counts because he had no judicial role in a criminal investigation yet decided to interfere in an ongoing criminal probe, threatened the prosecutors, conveyed the wrong information about the identity of the intelligence officers who were accompanying the truck and informed his superiors about a confidential investigation. The charges included covering up criminal evidence, aiding and abetting criminals, abuse of power, breach of confidentiality and threatening a public official, under Articles 257(1), 281(1,2) 283(1,2), 285(1) and 106(1) of the TCK.
As a result, İpek was listed as a suspect, and his case was referred to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) for prosecution under Law No. 6087, which requires special procedures for the criminal prosecution of the Justice Ministry undersecretary, who is also a member of the HSYK.
The criminal probe into Justice Minister Bozdağ, who is also listed as a suspect in the illegal arms shipment case along with other officials, was separated by prosecutor Takçı. The prosecution of a Cabinet minister requires separate procedures in the Turkish Parliament and as such, a summary of proceedings against him with case file No. 2014/54 was sent to Parliament for review. Parliament sets up a commission to investigate the facts after a vote is secured in the plenary, and the case may later be referred to the Constitutional Court for trial if the commission gives the green light to the prosecution.
Both Bozdağ and İpek were saved from legal troubles when the Erdoğan government hastily pushed legislation through Parliament to reshape the HSYK, the judicial council that decides on promotions, assignments and disciplinary proceedings for judges and prosecutors. With control of the judicial council in government hands, prosecutors Bağrıyanık and Takçı were reassigned to other posts and later dismissed and jailed on fabricated charges of revealing state secrets as well as espionage. The criminal investigations they launched into Islamist officials for aiding and abetting al-Qaeda were dropped, and the paperwork concerning the illegal arms shipments was classified and a blanket media gag order was obtained for the publication of any materials with respect to this incident.
The government’s public claim was that the truck was carrying humanitarian aid to Turkmens in Syria, which did not sound credible given the fact that they were in a panic and scrambled to stop the search of the container in the trailer. The MIT agents, asked by government investigators to testify against the sacked prosecutors, even declined to do so after the government refused to allow them to give their statements. The original criminal probe against the MIT agents who escorted the truck was dropped after the removal of the lead prosecutors in the case.