It was no secret that the ultra-rich Ethem Sancak was trying to get rid of the media group with which he was entrusted by Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. After his appointment to the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Central Decision and Administration Board (MKYK) in 2017, Sancak reaffirmed at a meeting his desire to unload the media assets. Erdoğan just nodded.
There was great curiosity as to who would take over ownership of the newspapers and TV and radio stations that Erdoğan believed to be of utmost importance to his rule. Sancak was successfully serving Erdoğan’s best interests. He had publicly declared his fondness for Erdogan, using a very strong Turkish word that means “passionate love” to describe his feelings for him. The media group’s publication policy was a reflection of this dogged loyalty for the autocrat, and the group did not even try to hide their proud role as a propaganda tool. The new owner’s identity was a matter of interest since serving as the head of these dailies and stations simply meant an attestation of closeness to Turkey’s most powerful mortal.
It didn’t take long before a name finally emerged: Hasan Yeşildağ, a confidant of Erdoğan and his sworn ally for decades. Turkish journalist Selahattin Önkibar wrote that Erdoğan met the Yeşildağ family in Üsküdar and embraced them as they were neighbors and were from the same province. Their relationship deepened over time. However, the media group was eventually transferred not to him but to his brother, Zeki Yeşildağ, for an unspecified reason. It was rumored, however, that this change in name was due to Hasan’s dark history.
To the ordinary person in Turkey, neither Hasan nor Zeki’s name would mean a lot since these men had recognition and fame only within limited circles. But they were indeed important figures. And equally obscure. Between the two, Hasan Yeşildağ was the more well known.
Hasan Yeşildağ’s popularity came after he volunteered to guard Erdoğan when the latter was imprisoned for four months in 1998, when he was still mayor of İstanbul. As Erdoğan was headed to Pınarhisar Prison in March 1999, Yeşildağ was already there, waiting. In a biography titled “Bir Liderin Doğuşu” (The Birth of a Leader) about Erdoğan’s rise by Hüseyin Besli and Ömer Özbay, Yeşildağ’s Pınarhisar days are narrated as follows: “He first shared the information he had received [about an assassination plot against Erdoğan] with his brother Zeki Yeşildağ. While going over what measures to take, Zeki said: ‘Brother, no need to beat a dead horse. You will also enter the jail with Mr. Tayyip; you are no stranger to prisons!’”
Among the measures they took was to rent eight houses around the prison and to settle trustworthy people in them. In addition, cameras were installed in a gas station at the entrance of the district so they could monitor all visitors to the city.
According to a story in the Cumhuriyet daily, the next step was to transfer some inmates to other prisons. The daily does not give any details as to how this was made possible. The ward that Erdoğan would stay in was made to resemble a hotel room, furnished with a sofa, TV, carpet, curtains, wallpaper, etc., to ensure his comfort as much as possible. Cameras were installed inside the Pınarhisar jail, too. There were some armed guards as well. In addition to all this Erdoğan was able to keep his mobile phone, and Hasan Yeşildağ acted as his private secretary, all from the prison.
These are some positively spun stories depicting Yeşildağ as an altruistic hero and a best comrade of Erdoğan. Maybe he was. But he was also more than this. He had an extraordinary background and a long history of violence, illegal acts and criminal behavior, among many other notorious aspects. His name was regularly mentioned along with those of mafia leaders and criminals.
Before the military coup of 1980, Yeşildağ was an active member of an ultranationalist organization called the “Ülkücüler” (meaning idealists in Turkish) that was terrorizing the country in a fight with leftists. A story in the Milliyet newspaper on March 9, 1979 informed its readers about the capture of 17 Ülkücü militants thanks to information provided by two of their comrades apprehended while carrying bombs four months earlier. These 17 people were the perpetrators of a series of armed attacks in İstanbul’s Üsküdar and Kadıköy districts. “Hasan Yeşildağ and Saffet Alyans, who were claimed to have murdered Assistant Manager of the Atatürk Education Institute Fahrettin Yılmaz, are also among those captured,” the story stated.
In addition, a hitman named Cengiz Sağlam, who shot two people sitting on the balconies of their homes, confessed that he had obtained the weapon and some explosives from Erhan Öztunç. Öztunç would also state in his police interrogation that Üsküdar Idealist Youth Association founder Hasan Yeşildağ had provided the weapons and bombs.
A few weeks later, two other captured militants would confess that they were carrying out armed robberies to get money to send to their friends in prison. In their interrogation they, too, would give Yeşildağ’s name as the provider of their weapons.
Yeşildağ’s trial started a couple of weeks after the coup. He was accused of deliberately killing Yılmaz, and the prosecutor demanded the death penalty for him and another militant whose name was Cengiz Ayhan. But the judges acquitted him while sentencing Ayhan to death, later commuting the punishment to a life sentence. One of the judges would, however, reject the verdict, saying the witness statements clearly identified Yeşildağ as one of the accomplices in the murder. He was acquitted of charges of membership in an armed gang, robbery, extortion, coercion and blackmail.
After being handed down the life sentence, Ayhan became repentant and wrote a confession in the form of an eight-page letter. The Military Court of Cassation ordered a retrial due to the contents of the letter. The Milliyet daily’s December 14, 1980 edition covered this confession in which Ayhan claimed that Hasan Yeşildağ and Ali Bilir tortured him to convince him to remain silent and not divulge anything to the court.
Hasan Yeşildağ’s name was mentioned together with that of famous assassin Mehmet Ali Ağca, too. Ağca, who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, had killed famous journalist Abdi İpekçi in 1979. Ağca’s brother Adnan was upset after his brother was arrested again following his release from jail. Adnan said Yeşildağ was Erdoğan’s “secret vault,” that the same Yeşildağ was a close friend of Mehmet Ali Ağca and that they used to hang out together in Kartal back in the day.
Main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Deputy General Secretary Mehmet Sevigen submitted a written question to parliament concerning the relationship between Erdoğan and Yeşildağ after Adnan Ağca’s claims, particularly the one that pointed to Yeşildağ as Erdoğan’s secret vault. Erdoğan was accused of having secret accounts in Swiss banks with tens of billions of dollars in them and that these accounts belonged on paper to Hasan Yeşildağ. Another question Sevigen raised was the connection between Yeşildağ and the late Finance Minister Kemal Unakıtan and the transportation minister of the time, Binali Yıldırım, connecting these relations to municipal rail system tenders.
In 2006 Sabah columnist Mahmut Övür, who is a staunch Erdoğanist at present but was a critical journalist back then, would also highlight this issue in a column and question the interconnected relations between Ağca, Yeşildağ and Erdoğan.
Tuncay Özkan should also be mentioned here since he is probably the journalist who wrote the most about Yeşildağ’s identity and relationships. The Yeşildağ-Ağca connection was on his radar, too. Özkan’s claims were informative: Yeşildağ was involved in the assassination of Abdi İpekçi and several others, was arrested and informed on his friends. He lived the life of a fugitive in Switzerland, where he would later be jailed for drugs and shady business dealings. He was a member of a group affiliated with Abdullah Çatlı, a dark figure of Turkey’s “deep state” whose death in a suspicious traffic accident in the Susurluk district of Balıkesir province exposed how the army, politicians and organized crime gangs were acting together.
Özkan questioned how it was possible for Yeşildağ to be able to use Switzerland as a second homeland despite the fact that his inmates in Swiss prisons were deported and would never again be allowed to enter that country. Even in Switzerland, he served jail time for drug-related crimes. However, Özkan merely raised the question without providing an answer. His columns would also focus on Hasan and Zeki’s little brother Ali.
Like his two brothers, Ali was also unusual. His adventure was in the papers in 2001 when he and his gang kidnapped Ali Fevzi Bir, a famous member of the clandestine crime organization that became known after Susurluk, to collect the hefty amount of $1 million in ransom. They released Bir, once they got some of the ransom, asking him to bring more money if he wanted to stay unharmed in the future, but the police caught them shortly thereafter.
Özkan also paid special attention to Yeşildağ’s relationship with Erdoğan. In his column on October 26, 2001, he would label Yeşildağ with a Turkish idiom that describes someone’s unexpected and undeserved rise. Özkan noted that the man’s name appeared in every scandal that the İstanbul Municipality under Erdoğan had been involved in. Yeşildağ was penniless until his path crossed Erdoğan’s, Özkan wrote.
Yeşildağ managed to flee the country for Switzerland after his release from jail following the coup. Turkey’s deportation requests were rejected in 1989 due to the existence of capital punishment in Turkey. He would become a close friend of Erdoğan in 1995 after returning to Turkey. Erdoğan was mayor of İstanbul. In 2000 Yeşildağ was acquitted in the Abdi İpekçi assassination case.
Erdoğan has generously paid Hasan Yeşildağ back for his services during the years he has been in power. Leaving a media group to him and his brother was just another favor. How much they had to pay to obtain ownership of three newspapers, TV and radio stations and online sites was not disclosed, but considering the declared value of the media group at $20 million, it must have been somewhere around that amount. Or maybe Sancak just disengaged himself from the company quickly without asking for any money. Or he might also have presented the media outlets as a gift to the new owner in line with Erdoğan’s orders.
Ironically Erdoğan’s reward was indeed a source of ridicule for Yeşildağ, who was touted as the new boss of the “pool media” by some newspapers like Cumhuriyet. The term pool media was coined due to the system described in tapes of telephone conversations included in the files of graft and embezzlement operations in December 2013. The transcript of these phone conversations that were made public by anonymous social media users revealed that Erdogan was dragging businessmen close to him into a scheme in which they were forced to pour large sums of money into a pool system to gather enough funds for the acquisition of certain media outlets. Once these dailies and TV stations were purchased, their management would in no time be overhauled and they would immediately start publishing only stories that either promoted and defended Erdogan and his government or attacked his rivals.
His brother Zeki, the figurehead at the helm of the media company, also followed a career path similar to that of his brother, albeit with less suspense and more stability. He dealt with some local-level, mid-sized businesses. He was involved in politics, but after getting close to Erdoğan’s team in the municipal administration, became somewhat more famous.
Zeki’s marriage is also worth mentioning. He married the sister of the former general manager of Emlakbank, Engin Civan, who made the headlines of national newspapers for months in 1994 for his leading role in a bribery scandal. In a nutshell, Selim Edes, the owner of ESKA Construction, bribed Civan with $3.5 million to be able to collect the money the bank owed him for a land sale in 1985. When Civan failed to keep his promise, Edes wanted the bribe back. Civan failed to do that, too. Edes was furious and sought a solution by asking Dündar Kılıç and his son-in-law Alaattin Çakıcı, once Turkey’s most dreaded mafia leaders, to convince Civan. Civan was simply too stubborn to bow to threats, leaving Kılıç and Çakıcı with no option but to spray his car with bullets while he was inside. Civan survived, but the assassination attempt was an unprecedented scandal.
Zeki Yeşildağ first became involved in politics under the roof of the late President Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party (ANAP). After he was elected a member of the İstanbul City Council from Erdoğan’s party, he became richer by securing the operating rights of Ulus Park, winning municipal tenders for tree planting, traffic light installation vehicles and security cameras.
Like Hasan, Zeki Yeşildağ is also part of Erdoğan’s inner circle. Erdoğan has brought him on some of his visits abroad. For instance Zeki was among Turkish security people who assaulted protestors during Erdoğan’s official trip to the US in May 2017.
Zeki Yeşildağ’s café in İstanbul’s Ulus district became the center of attention after the assassination of consular agent of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Medet Önlü. According to Önlü’s relatives, cited by journalist Celal Başlangıç in his column on artigercek.com, Önlü had been busy with political and humanitarian activities for the diaspora, which sought the independence of Chechnya. He was trying his best to prevent Chechen youths from joining jihadists in the Syrian civil war. Already a target for the Russians, his attempts to raise awareness among Chechen youths of the evil of the war in Syria made him a target for the Turkish authorities, too, his relatives said. Önlü was murdered on May 22, 2013 in his office in Ankara, and hours later Russian national Rizvan Ezbulatov was captured on suspicion of instigating the murder and is believed to have fled the country after his release pending trial. The prosecutor then issued a warrant for his arrest, but he remains at large, and hitman Murat Aluç was apprehended. Aluç told police that Ezbulatov hired him and spoke with him about the plan to kill Önlü at the Ulus café. When he asked if the place was safe to talk, Ezbulatov had said the owners were friends of his. The lawyer for Önlü’s family repeatedly demanded that Hasan and Zeki Yeşildağ of the Ulus café be heard at the trial.
Narrating the history of the Yeşildağ family is like recounting the history of Turkey’s political right over the last three decades: engaging in a fight with imagined enemies, involvement with drugs and violence like a disbanded paramilitary organization, taking part in local politics with the pragmatic right after the 1980 coup, and employing previous experience in shadowy affairs for the needs of the new right’s insatiable hunger for power. Eventually, like the society and its institutions, Turkey’s media has been transformed into a servant of power and has become like a tailor-made suit for the Yeşildağ family.