Turkey’s interior minister tries to derail probe into murder of Russian ambassador

 

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who is in charge of the police force, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey with 268,000 employees, should be considered a key suspect in the coverup of the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, who was gunned down by a jihadist police officer on Dec. 19, 2016.

This is not because the radicalized 22-year-old assassin, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, was hired by his department in the summer of 2014 or because Soylu was the boss when the gunman decided to take the life of the Russian envoy in the heart of Ankara. One can also argue that the case has presumably nothing to do with political accountability, which is practically nonexistent in Turkey, where the Islamist government always finds scapegoats to blame for anything that goes wrong under its watch. Nobody dares utter the saying that heads must roll when a police officer, sworn to protect the lives of innocent people, decides to kill an ambassador whose security was entrusted to the host country. Why did no one take action on this assassin and why did they fail to focus on his close links to the al-Qaeda network in Turkey when there had been so many red flags that would have prompted officials in the government to take preventive measures. 

Perhaps we have some road markers that explain why Soylu scrambled to cover up the traces that would have led investigators to the masterminds behind the triggerman. The Turkish interior minister’s connections to the circle of friends the gunman hung out with and Soylu’s inexplicable rush to the crime scene to give the order to kill the hitman raise serious questions about his complicity in this murder. I talked to several security specialists who have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the police department and are quite familiar with the rules and procedures in instances where an active shooter is confronted. All of them say it was quite odd for the Turkish minister himself to go to the scene and direct the operation on the ground. 

The data gleaned from several witness testimonies, video recordings and crime scene and forensic reports incorporated in the indictment in the Karlov case reinforce the view that the gunman was executed when in fact he could have been caught alive albeit wounded. The examination of CCTV footage inside the Füreyya Korel Sergi Salonu, an exhibit hall in the Çağdaş Sanatlar Merkezi art gallery, shows that Altıntaş engaged in a shootout between 19.25 and 19.42 hours after he had killed the ambassador at 19.05 hours. In the seventh minute in the exchange, at 19.32 hours, he was shot in the left leg by the officers who were first on the scene. While he was protecting himself behind a wall at 19.34 hours, he was shot in his left side and dropped to the ground. He managed to fire off several shots while he was wounded and lying on the ground, prompting return fire from the officers. 

 

 

At 19.37, two special operations officers (badge numbers 162995 and 405114) started to approach the gunman, who was already in  poor condition and was unsuccessfully trying to get up. According to the video footage, the special ops officer with badge number 405114 shot the gunman on his approach, putting Altıntaş on the ground while he was trying to get to his knees. He lay flat on his back, dropping his gun to his right side. At 19:40 hours, another police officer with badge number 173854 moved next to Altıntaş and kicked the gun away from him. At this point, the gunman was still alive and was moving his arms and legs. Although he was wounded, lying on the ground and posed no threat, another special ops officer with badge number 162995 kept shooting at the gunman, followed by another round of shots fired by an officer wearing badge number 243349 at 19.41 hours. 

 

 

An autopsy of the gunman’s body shows he was shot 33 times, of which 13 bullet wounds were deemed to have been deadly. Multiple entry and exit wounds were found on his head, neck and chest, suggesting the police shot to kill after he was down and did not really pose a threat. However, investigators who work for Soylu claimed police kept shooting at the assassin even though he was incapacitated because they suspected he was carrying a bomb. The experts I talked to believe this was quite unlikely given the length of the exchange of fire between the gunman and the police officers who responded to the scene. If he had a bomb, he would have already detonated it when there were many people in the art gallery. The gunman himself told the guests at the event that he did not want to hurt anybody and ordered them to clear the exhibit hall. This was already reported to the police. 

 

The experts also say that the police should not have been shooting him all over his body if they suspected he had a concealed bomb strapped to it. Moreover, there was no perimeter security as required by the protocol involving suicide bombers and explosives. For example, if authorities suspected the gunman was carrying a bomb, no local police officer would have been allowed inside the building except specially equipped and authorized personnel who are trained to handle such cases. That protocol was not followed in this case, suggesting that the police did not suspect there was a bomb involved. 

Multiple witness statements from police officers who responded to the emergency call from nearby police stations show that the local police already had the situation under control before the special ops team arrived on the scene. A police officer (badge number 243349) testified that he and his colleague (badge number 220899) were the only ones inside the building and that he had wounded the gunman after shooting him three or four times in the leg by targeting his abdomen. He was following the protocol and aiming to neutralize the threat, not to kill. He broadcast on the police channel that he had wounded the gunman, who dropped to the ground from the bullet wound. At this point, the six-person special operations police squad arrived at the building, at 19.20 hours, and entered the building five minutes later after setting up their offense.  

Police officers Servet Yıldıztepe, Murat Seviş and Mehmet Erol from Special Operations secured the perimeter while three police officers identified only by their badge numbers (162995, 402564, 405114) went up to the second floor to engage in the shootout. The team leader wearing badge number 162995 ordered the other two to provide him cover while he shot the assassin three times at close range. Right before the execution, the local police teams were escorted out of the building by the special ops squad. The squad leader in his testimony claimed that he heard somebody shout that there was a bomb on the gunman, but his colleague Yıldıztepe testified that it was the team leader himself (badge number 162995) who said he saw cables protruding from the body of the gunman and shouted that there was a bomb strapped to his body. Then the order came in on the wire, asking the squad to do what was required. 

Turkish prosecutor Adem Akıncı, who prepared the indictment, took the police’s claims at face value and bought the argument from the Interior Ministry run by Soylu. He opened a probe into the conduct of the police officers but quickly decided to drop the investigation. He also did not disclose the names of the three special operations officers who were involved in the killing of the assassin.

Turkish Minister Soylu’s actions on the ground after he arrived at the crime scene further confirm the attempt to cover up the evidence. This was revealed in the witness testimony of Tahsin Özkan, a cameraman for the state-run Turkish Broadcasting Corporation (TRT). He was working the night shift at the time of the incident and was dispatched by his chief on assignment to cover the art event held by the Russian Embassy. In his statement given on December 19, 2016, Özkan stated that he took a camera with 3G live feed capabilities and went to the event with a reporter named Huriye İyiçınar Coşkun. They thought the ambassador might comment on Syria during his speech and turned on the 3G live feed to the TRT news headquarters.

When the assassin started shooting at the ambassador, he ran outside along with others and was unable to get back in to pick up his camera. While waiting outside the building, he saw the interior minister arrive and related what he had seen when the police took him to the minister after he identified himself as a cameramen. After the gunman was killed, he went back to retrieve his camera, which was still recording and broadcasting to the newsroom in real time. He showed the video footage to Soylu, who watched the scene from a camera in the building, which is home to the Ankara Chamber of Industry (ASO), located next to the art gallery. The cameraman was escorted out of the building by the police and later saw that the police had seized the footage. In other words, Soylu hoped that he could bury key evidence from the recording on the TRT camera but did not know that the camera had already fed the video to TRT servers through a 3G live connection. 

The TRT newsroom broadcast some of the footage from the scene and shared the video with partners in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in line with standard operating procedure on breaking news. Dutch public broadcasting company NOS picked up the video at 19.32 hours after it was transferred by TRT to the EBU pool. If the camera had not been equipped with 3G technology and the cameraman had not activated the wide angle recording with a journalist’s instinct when the shooting started, perhaps the world would not be able to see how the murder took place and how the assassin was shouting a jihadist Nashed verse he had memorized earlier by watching YouTube videos. The prosecutor launched a criminal probe into TRT employees for their involvement in airing the video of the incident, and the investigation is still ongoing. The Erdoğan government is apparently angry with the reporters who did their job and in the process made the attempt at a coverup by Soylu and others quite difficult. 

There are more reasons why Soylu wanted to cover his tracks, which led to a person who shared an apartment with the assassin. At the time of the murder, Altıntaş was staying with Serkan Özkan, a suspect in the case, in an apartment located in the Granit alley in the Kalaba neighborhood of Ankara’s Keçiören district. Özkan bought the flat on October 8, 2015 and sold it on May 16, 2017 after the murder. He is an attorney who regularly attends the lectures of Nurettin Yıldız, a venomous preacher who advocates violent and armed jihad. Incidentally, Yıldız has often appeared as the keynote speaker at events organized by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) youth branches as well as the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which is run by Erdoğan’s family. In fact, both assassin Altıntaş and his roommate Özkan attended Yıldız’s study groups in the Turkish capital. The evidence collected from their apartment showed both were closely linked to Yıldız’s NGO, the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı). 

İbrahim Yılmazoğlu, also a suspect in the case, testified to the prosecutor that he was a follower of cleric Yıldız and admitted that he started organizing a volunteer platform for the cleric in Ankara in 2013. He rejected claims that Yıldız’s group was radical although he advocated the view that armed jihad would be necessary when conditions were ripe. He also testified that he organized lectures in the apartment occupied by Altıntaş and Özkan. The two roommates knew each other in 2015 when both started attending religious study circles organized by Yılmazoğlu on behalf of Yıldız. In September 2016, at the urging of Yılmazoğlu, Altıntaş moved into the apartment owned by Özkan. He did not pay rent but shared the cost of food and utility bills.  

Özkan had completed a five-month legal internship with a law office owned Abdullah Polat, a pro-Erdoğan lawyer whose picture with Soylu was revealed on social media after the murder took place. Polat was not considered a suspect in the case and testified only as a witness.  He claimed that he was targeted with a smear campaign because of his photo with the Turkish interior minister. 

In light of the many pieces of evidence that point in the direction of senior government officials including Soylu as well as Erdoğan’s family, no wonder the authorities went to great lengths to derail the probe and cover up the incriminating evidence that would fully expose the network in which the gunman was involved. They are afraid of Russian wrath and the international reaction to what they helped nourish in Turkey, a jihadist breeding ground. 

 

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