A new profile of police officers in Turkey in the aftermath of an unprecedented purge of well-qualified personnel by the government highlights the existence of radicalism, corruption and criminal activity in the country’s main law enforcement agency.
A survey of select cases reviewed by Nordic Monitor suggests the 268,000-strong police force has been marred by serious accusations of murder, drug dealing, organized crime links, rape, theft, artifact smuggling and tender-rigging. Confirmed cases of torture and ill treatment in police detention centers have been on the rise, while authorities fail to investigate and prosecute perpetrators in law enforcement.
The police department has suffered much in the aftermath of December 2013 corruption investigations that incriminated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates. Within two weeks of the exposure of the corruption probe, Erdoğan sacked some 2,000 police officers including veteran chiefs who were investigating the major corruption network in the government. The purge quickly turned into a politically motivated revenge operation by the Erdoğan government that targeted investigators. In the end tens of thousands of police officers including two-thirds of all police chiefs were dismissed and/or jailed.
The opposition in Turkey branded the shakeup in the police force as a civilian coup and criticized the government, saying that there had never been such a mass dismissal at any period in Turkish history.
At the same time, some of the police chiefs who had been suspended or dismissed on criminal charges in the past were allowed to return to replace officers who were purged. By means of sweeping changes in government hiring practices, Erdoğan started recruiting new officers based on ideological commitment rather than merit. As a result, instances of police officers who were sworn to protect and serve the people but instead were doing the opposite have been on the rise. Nordic Monitor examined some of these cases, which suggest a pattern of impunity and government protection of controversial law enforcement officials in what was seen as a systematic and deliberate policy.
On Jan. 8, 2014 immediately after the corruption probes went public, the Erdoğan government sacked 15 provincial police chiefs and deputy director of the national police Muammer Bucak, who led the directorate for foreigners, foreign relations, Interpol-Europol and passports. Those who were dismissed included Adana provincial police department chief Ahmet Zeki Gürkan, Ankara’s Kadir Ay, Antalya’s Mustafa Sağlam, Bursa’s Ali Osman Kahya, Diyarbakır‘s Recep Güven, Erzurum’s Turgut Yıldız, Gaziantep’s Ömer Aydın, Hatay’s Ragıp Kılıç, İzmir’s Ali Bilkay, Kocaeli’s Hulusi Çelik, Malatya’s Mustafa Aygün, Mersin’s Arif Öksüz, Sakarya’s Mustafa Aktaş, Samsun’s İsmail Türkmenli and Trabzon’s Ertan Yavaş.
The veteran chiefs had investigated landmark cases in Turkey, and the Erdoğan government was concerned that further corrupt activities could be exposed, thus putting pressure on the government. For example, police chief Aktaş had led the investigation into Cem Uzan, a controversial businessman who was once active in various sectors from banking to media. Uzan fled Turkey in October 2009 after his conviction of fraud, document falsification and organized crime. Uzan and his family members attracted media attention in 2004 when the government seized more than 200 of their companies in what authorities described as an attempt to collect on debts totaling billions of euros. The Uzans had embezzled company assets and defrauded Motorola and Nokia in nearly $3 billion in loans made to Telsim, a company run by the family.
Police chief Recep Güven made the headlines when he said: “It is not the country but humanity that comes first. I had said that you are not a human being unless you weep for the terrorist up on the mountain, too,” adding, “If a child goes into the mountains [to take up arms], then we all have a responsibility in that.” He was loved by the people of Diyarbakır.
On Feb. 13, 2014 the Erdoğan government dismissed 27 more provincial chiefs, three deputy directors of the national police (Feridun Taşçı, Mustafa Çankal and İsmail Baş) and 50 officers at the National Police Department’s intelligence bureau. One of the police chiefs who was removed was Diyarbakır’s Zeki Bulut, the former head of Erdoğan’s team of bodyguards.
Other police chiefs removed include Artvin’s provincial police department chief Hüsrev Salmaner, Balıkesir’s Halil Karataş, Batman’s Hasan Ali Okan, Bitlis’ Sadettin Akgüç, Çanakkale’s Osman Zoroğlu, Edirne’s Cemil Ceylan, Erzincan’s Mustafa Elaman, Iğdır’s İbrahim Karadağ, İzmir’s Sami Uslu, Kahramanmaraş’s Metin Aşık, Karabük’s Oktay Keskin, Karaman’s Lütfü Sönmez, Kırklareli’s Hüseyin Aktaş, Kilis’ Mehmet Akpınar, Kütahya’s Kadir Akbıyık, Manisa’s Yunus Çetin, Mardin’s Derviş Kara, Muş’s Muharrem Durmaz, Nevşehir’s Mehmet Yüksel, Ordu’s Hakan Kırmacı, Siirt’s Mutlu Ekizoğlu, Şanlıurfa’s Mehmet Likoğlu, Şırnak’s Avni Usta, Tekirdağ’s Ali Yılmaz, Tokat’s Osman Balcı and Yozgat’s Hasan Yılmaz.
All these top police chiefs later faced legal action and were either jailed by the government on trumped-up charges or forced into exile to escape false imprisonment. They were replaced by political cronies who, in many cases, had criminal records and did the government’s bidding in defiance of the law and established procedure.
Among the newcomers was Mustafa Gülcü, a convicted felon who was tried in 2009 by the Izmir 10th High Criminal Court on charges of connections to criminal gangs and membership in an organized crime family. He was sentenced to three months, 10 days in prison. In February 2014 Erdoğan brought him back from his desk job to be a deputy director of the entire police force. He retired in December 2018. Faruk Ünsal, a police chief who served two months in jail after he was arrested on Feb. 2, 2009 on charges of leaking confidential information to an organized crime syndicate, was made a deputy director of the national police. The case against him was hushed up by the government, and he was acquitted in 2018 under pressure from Erdoğan.
Celal Uzunkaya, another police chief who was convicted and sentenced to three months, 10 days on charges of assisting an organized crime network, was tapped by Erdoğan. He was appointed provincial police chief in the western province Izmir on Feb. 13, 2014. Uzunkaya’s verdict was overturned on appeal thanks to government lobbying. He is now head of Turkey’s National Police Department. Emin Aslan, a police chief who was investigated for aiding and abetting drug traffickers in September 2009, served seven months in pre-trial detention before his release pending trial. He was acquitted in 2015.
On June 3, 2014 a police chief named Osman Ak, who was tried in two separate cases -– one for illegal wiretapping of top government and military officials in 1999 and the other for filing an incorrect statement in his asset disclosure — was appointed provincial chief of the northwestern province of Zonguldak. He was using illegal wiretaps to enrich himself in real estate development projects and failed to fully declare his assets.
After redesigning the top leadership of the police force with controversial figures, the Erdoğan government moved forward with its plans to reshuffle the senior and middle ranks with the help of these newcomers. The growing abuse and criminal cases that involved many police officers reflect this major and abrupt change in law enforcement. All the police chiefs and officers including those who were working in technical departments who were purged by the government had worked on the 2013 corruption investigations.
The pointman who directed these dismissals and recruited new officers was no other than Gülcü. In exchange for his services to Erdoğan, the government helped overturn the trial court’s conviction and jail sentence on appeal in 2015. The first order Gülcü gave after he moved into the number two position in the Turkish National Police Department was “give me a list of all the police chiefs who were sentenced and suspended on criminal charges,” a source with knowledge of the appointment told Nordic Monitor.
The rationale behind this was that police chiefs with blemished records would be more amenable to complying with illegal orders of the Erdoğan government, and Gülcü wanted to work with them in the crackdown on Erdoğan’s critics and opponents as well as dissidents. Crucial departments such as organized crime, counterterrorism and intelligence were all staffed by controversial police chiefs. As a result the profile of police chiefs and officers has changed dramatically since then.
In October 2015 video footage emerged of the body of Hacı Lokman Birlik, who was reportedly killed in a clash between members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkish security forces in Şırnak, being dragged behind a police vehicle. The footage showed the body being pulled while police officers in the vehicle are heard swearing at the victim. One is heard congratulating his colleague for killing the man. Several police officers were suspended after a public outcry, but they later reportedly resumed their duties, and some were even promoted.
The most striking example of the Turkish police force transformation into a hotbed of radicals was the case of Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the police officer who assassinated Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey in December 2016. Altıntaş was recruited to police ranks in 2014 through the reference system, which was initiated by the Erdoğan government following the Dec. 17/25, 2013 corruption operation. The records showed the jihadist police officer was financially rewarded more than 30 times by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in a two-and-a-half-year period.
Altıntaş had attended the lectures of Nurettin Yildiz, a radical imam who is considered to be the family cleric of Erdoğan because of his close ties to the office of the Turkish president and his family members. This extremist preacher was paraded as a keynote speaker at youth events organized by the ruling AKP and conferences and lectures sponsored by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), which is run by Erdoğan’s family. He even travelled to Syria to meet with militant groups and often preached in support of violent jihadist campaigns around the world.
Kuraner Erbaş, a police officer in Çanakkale’s Bayramiç district who was on duty wearing an Islamic turban and robe, was suspended in August 2017 for violating dress regulations after several complaints were received from the public.
The Erdoğan government has also come under increased criticism in recent years due to the impunity of the police force for torture and ill treatment in detention centers. The torture and abuse have been systematic and deliberate, with many documented cases confirming such practices approved by the government and the lack of any police officer being held accountable for verified torture cases.
In connection with complaints filed by individuals who have suffered severe torture and ill treatment in custody, the judicial authorities issue decisions that encourage the security officers who are accused of inflicting torture. For example Abdullah B., who had been arrested in an investigation into the Gülen movement, a critic of the government, in Trabzon, filed an official complaint with the Trabzon Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office saying that he and his two-month-pregnant wife had been beaten, ill treated and threatened in detention.
However prosecutor Eşref Aktaş “decided not to prosecute” the complaint by referring to Article 9 of Decree No. 667 passed by the government during a state of emergency. Aktaş concluded that police officers do not have criminal liability in connection with the performance of their duties and cannot be prosecuted under said decree.
The most well-known case is that of 42-year-old Turkish teacher Gökhan Açıkkollu, who was tortured to death in police custody after his detention on July 24, 2016 on trumped-up charges of coup plotting and terrorism. He was in police custody for 13 days, during which time he was subjected to both physical and psychological torture. He was never officially interrogated, and the police did not even take a statement from him. Instead, he was taken from his cell every day to face torture and rushed to the hospital when his condition deteriorated, only to be sent back to detention. He told doctors about the abuse and torture; yet, in some cases his statements were not even registered in the medical reports, and evidence of physical abuse was covered up under pressure from the police.
Açıkkollu was beaten, slapped in the face, kicked in the rib cage, kneed in the back and his head banged against the wall. His medical check-up before he was put in detention showed no signs of any heart troubles; yet, he was pronounced dead due to heart failure. When he collapsed in his cell, emergency services were belatedly called and he died in detention, although official records were doctored to reflect the false story that he died at the hospital.
The Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF), an advocacy group that monitors rights violations in Turkey, reported that there has been an increase in the number of suspicious deaths in Turkey, most in Turkish jails and detention centers where torture and ill-treatment are being practiced. In most cases, authorities concluded these to have been suicides without any effective, independent investigation. SCF compiled 120 cases of suspicious deaths and suicides in Turkey in a list dated July 24, 2018.
The Turkish police force was also marred by a series of other criminal activities in which police officers were involved. In many cases the policeman who was charged or arrested was set free, often with a slap on the wrist. For example Silvan district police chief Ömer Öztürk in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakir was detained on Jan. 20, 2019 on accusations of smuggling historic artifacts. In October 2018 a police officer identified as Murat K., who was working in the Ankara Police Department, was arrested while smuggling historic artifacts in an unmarked police car.
Incidents of rape and sexual harassment in which police officers are involved are also on the rise. The most recent example of the sexual harassment of a young woman by a police officer took place on Feb. 16, 2019 in Ankara. The harassment of Merve Demirel by a policeman during a protest was captured on camera, sparking an uproar among civil society groups and opposition political parties. Yet, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu stood by the police and claimed she was a “project” used to smear the police force. He also said Demirel’s family had ties to terrorism and that he would not let the police be criticized over someone like her.
Demirel filed a complaint with a public prosecutor and said she was intentionally harassed by the police officer who was trying to detain her. The woman attached photos of the alleged sexual assault to her petition.
In Turkey’s southeastern province of Mardin, a special operations police officer was accused of raping a 21-year-old woman after he met her online. He was indicted and faced up to 12 years in prison, but the court acquitted him on Feb. 8, 2018 on the grounds that the woman had the phone numbers of multiple men among the contacts on her mobile phone.
A 27-year-old police officer was indicted for the rape of a 28-year-old woman from Uzbekistan in March 2018. The police officer, who was on patrol with another officer at the time, offered the woman a ride home late at night in Istanbul’s Beylikdüzü district. Two police officers identified only by the initials K.T. and N.U. were arrested on charges of raping a woman in the northwestern Turkish province of Kocaeli on Nov. 15, 2017.
On Oct. 5, 2017 a police officer in the southern province of Antalya’s Alanya district was arrested after beating a woman, a citizen of Kyrgyzstan, and dragging her by the hair on the street. A video of the woman shows the two policemen initially speaking to her before one of them kicks her several times, beating her with his baton and dragging her by the hair.
There are other cases ranging from drug smuggling and bank robbery to organized crime activities in which police officers were involved. For example Istanbul’s Sultangazi district police chief Mehmet Karaca was found to be operating an unlicensed pub, the Taym Karaoke Clup, located in Ataşehir. The situation came to light after a fight broke out in the pub on Dec. 23, 2018.
In October 2017 an arrest warrant was issued for a police officer, identified only by the initials S.D., who was working for the Edirne Police Department, on charges of drug smuggling after a bust revealed that he had transported over 10 kilograms of heroin to a drug house.
In April 2018 two police officers were arrested in Istanbul after an investigation revealed that they were part of an organized crime network that was making money by producing fake documents for the purpose of defrauding the social security system.
In May 2017 a 48-year-old police officer in Turkey’s western province of Izmir, identified only by the initials T.K. was arrested for shoplifting and later released. A police officer assigned to Istanbul’s Sariyer district was charged with robbing two banks in 2014. In July 2017 a police officer in Aydin province was arrested for stealing jewelry after he broke in to the home of an 82-year-old woman and severely beat her before fleeing the scene.
It is clear that the Turkish police force has been turned into the private detective agency of President Erdoğan, who uses law enforcement to punish his critics and opponents as well as dissidents.