American Baptist minister in Turkey questioned over the murder of Russian ambassador

 

Turkish investigators questioned an American Baptist minister who had been conducting services in an Ankara hotel where the killer of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov stayed before the 2016 assassination.

According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor, the activities of Ankara Baptist Church International, a small congregation that mainly serves foreign nationals in the city, were part of the investigation into the murder. Turkish prosecutors studied profiles of all guests who had stayed at the Hotel Best at the same time as the killer, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, the 22-year-old police officer who checked into the hotel on Dec. 19, 2016.

Testifying as a witness in the case, Ricky Ricardo Harvey, a 61-year old former teacher who was holding Sunday services at the Hotel Best in the Turkish capital, told investigators that he did not know Altıntaş and had not come into contact with him. Harvey started out as a teacher in the US military in 1980 and deployed in 2002 to Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, where US and NATO forces were stationed. Two years before he retired from the military in 2006, Harvey started leading services in Ankara for Ankara Baptist Church International. He acquired Turkish citizenship in 2014.

 

Poster advertising religious services.

According to Harvey’s statement, he had been traveling to Ankara from Adana every weekend, staying overnight and conducting Sunday services before returning home. Among the 20 or 30 members of the congregation were Philippine and African nationals. He said the congregation raised $200 for use of a multi-purpose room for the services. He also added that nobody from the US Embassy had ever attended the gatherings. Nigerian diplomats used to participate, but they stopped coming three years earlier, Harvey noted.

 

US Pastor Ricky Ricardo Harvey’s statement to the Turkish police.

 

The police were told about the congregation’s Sunday meetings and Pastor Harvey by a man named Mehmet Levent Ergin, a hotel employee working as the front desk manager. It is not clear why he talked about the prayer services, which took place on Sunday, before the killer had even checked in. Ergin, who had been working at the hotel since 1993, provided a detailed account of Harvey and the congregation to the police. He said Harvey replaced another pastor named William in 2004 and had arrived every Saturday to organize the services for the next day and stayed in the hotel overnight.

 

Hotel Best employee Mehmet Levent Ergin’s statement to authorities.

 

The only reason Harvey and his congregation were caught up in the Karlov murder investigation is because the Baptist community had been holding prayer services in the same hotel where Altıntaş stayed. It was not the same day, but authorities suspected that there might be a link to foreign nationals and pursued the lead, questioning Harvey as well. Both Harvey and Ergin were listed in the indictment as witnesses. Prosecutor Adem Akıncı could have left these details out of the indictment as the Baptist community had nothing to do with the assassination; yet, he decided to include the details in the case file anyway.

 

Hotel Best is located across from the US Embassy in Ankara.

 

The assassin Altıntaş left the hotel at 18:31 to go to the exhibition gallery at the Çağdaş Sanatlar Merkezi (Contemporary Arts Center) to kill the Russian envoy. The killer checked into the hotel on Dec. 19, 2016 and was put in room 204.

The computer used by the killer shows in its history that Altıntaş searched the Internet for Hotel Best on Dec. 9, 14 and 16. He called Sertan Eroğlu, the hotel receptionist, on the night of Dec. 14 to make a reservation for one night with check-in on Dec. 16 and checkout on Dec. 17. After scouting out the art gallery on Dec. 15, 2016 he called the hotel and changed the reservation to Dec. 19 for a one-night stay.

On the day he planned to kill the ambassador, Altıntaş took a cab to the hotel, arrived at 12:14 and went to his room after paying the one-night charge of TL 160 with a credit card. He gave his suit to a hotel employee to be dry cleaned, saying he would leave the hotel at 17:00. The cleaning service had his suit ready at 16:10. He stayed in his room until evening, wired the balance in his bank account to his mother, took a shower and put on the newly cleaned suit before leaving the hotel for the art gallery.

He left the hotel at 18:30 and arrived a minute later at the arts center, which is located right around the corner. Since he was a police officer, he wasn’t required to go through security and lingered in the art gallery. The ambassador arrived at the building at 18:44, when the killer started shadowing him. A minute after the ambassador began his speech, Altıntaş fired nine shots, at 19:05, and shot once again three minutes later at the ambassador, who was lying on the floor, killing him.

The killer’s history suggests he had been radicalized in recent years after getting in touch with several radical clerics, some of whom worked for the Turkish government’s Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet). He had attended lectures given by these clerics, studied elementary Arabic and read jihadist books. Yet the prosecutor has never gone after any of these clerics who played a key role in radicalizing the police officer and did not investigate al-Qaeda-linked front NGOs that he was connected to.

Instead he scapegoated the Gülen movement for the murder when there was not a shred of evidence in the indictment that suggested the movement had anything to do with the crime. As if that were not enough, the prosecutor included statements on the Baptist congregation and on the police interrogation of the pastor to lend credence to the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder. This is a textbook case of how to shift blame away from accomplices who were involved in various capacities in the murder of the Russian ambassador. Despite these attempts, the prosecutor left many road markers in the case file for analysts to follow and conclude that Erdoğan’s jihadist friends had played key roles in nurturing the dangerous mindset of some of the police officers on the force.

Harvey is not the first Christian clergyman to have caught the attention of Turkish prosecutors. Andrew Brunson, the American pastor of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church who had lived in Turkey for over 20 years, was detained by authorities in Turkey in October 2016 and accused of spying and links to terrorist groups. Amid increasing pressure by the US administration, which  threatened Turkey with sanctions, Brunson was first moved from prison to house arrest in July 2018 and released for time served after his conviction in October 2018.

 

 

 

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