Little is known about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s eldest son, Ahmet Burak Erdoğan. He’s a multimillionaire businessman who owns at least six ships, but his companies don’t even have a website. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of photos on the Internet featuring Burak. He doesn’t have any presence on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media platform. He doesn’t comment on anything, even if it has shaken the entire country. He has remained quiet in do-or-die situations his father faced. For instance, he didn’t utter a word during or after the failed coup of July 15, 2016. He was the only family member that didn’t attend the swearing-in of his father after he was first elected president in 2014. He didn’t attend his grandmother’s funeral, nor did he share the joy of some of his siblings’ wedding ceremonies. Unlike Erdoğan’s other children, who are frequently seen in the media, he has been a total recluse for some unknown reason, deliberately eschewing any kind of social interaction.
He doesn’t live in Turkey. Stories, comments and tweets that mention his name are immediately deleted under court orders that his lawyers secure in no time. He even cannot tolerate a page on Wikipedia’s Turkey site about him, which was already very short and only included a couple of references to publicly available information.
It has been widely speculated that his avoidance of public attention started after he hit Sevim Tanürek, a classical music singer, in a traffic accident in 1998. She subsequently died from her injuries. He was a university student in İstanbul at the time, reportedly didn’t have a driver’s license and hit the singer while she was in a crosswalk. The car dragged Tanürek for about 65 meters. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was mayor of İstanbul. He hurriedly sent Burak abroad. According to eyewitnesses, municipal workers were immediately dispatched to the scene of the accident, and the entire street was cleaned up. Burak Erdoğan never appeared in court for his ensuing trial.
The initial police report noted that Burak was at fault on three out of of eight counts and wasn’t paying attention to the road, so the prosecution opened a case against him, demanding a sentence of between three and 20 months for causing injury by reckless driving. When Tanürek died after a week in intensive care, the prosecution changed the indictment, seeking between two and five years in prison for Burak. However, the chairman of the traffic specialization department of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Eyüp Çakmak, submitted a report in which he found that all the fault lay with Tanürek, and based on this report, the court acquitted Burak of all charges. Çakmak was appointed president of the Turkish Maritime Organization (TDİ) in 2004, after Erdoğan became prime minister. Erdoğan has widely been accused of manipulating the justice system to get his son Burak off the hook, but his lawyer has always categorically denied the allegations.
In an attempt to explain Burak’s avoidance of the public eye, unlike his other siblings, some have speculated that he is at odds with his father because of a debt of TL 500,000, but this has to be far from the truth since that’s only loose change for the president. Besides, Erdoğan himself has actively supported his son’s business deals, as he did when his son needed capital to purchase a ship. Not only that, his brother Mustafa and his brother-in-law Ziya İlgen, in whom Erdoğan puts great trust, are Burak’s business partners. In the famous “zeroing” conversation between Erdoğan and his son Bilal, in which Erdoğan asked Bilal to get rid of cash stashed in the houses of family members as soon as possible to avoid getting caught in a possible police raid during the December 17, 2013 corruption operation, Erdoğan said that he should keep in close contact with his brother Burak while getting rid of the money secreted away in various places.
Erdoğan’s first child
Burak was born on July, 4, 1979, the first son of now-President Erdoğan. He attended the Kartal İmam-Hatip High School and later enrolled at İstanbul Bilgi University. After the accident that killed Tanürek, he went to London to study economics on a scholarship provided by businessman Remzi Gür upon Erdoğan’s request. He married Sema, his classmate from high school, on February 23, 2001. Sema was the daughter of Osman Ketenci, who would also become Burak’s partner in the marine business.
Burak was exempted from obligatory military service after obtaining a medical report from the Kasımpaşa Military Hospital for an undisclosed health problem. Not long after, Burak made his entrée into the business world in a partnership with Mustafa Erdoğan and Ziya İlgen. The three of them bought a company in the marine business on April 10, 2006 and changed its name from Turkuaz to Bumerz, derived from the names of the partners.
Burak entered into another partnership eight months later, and on January 19, 2007 established another company in the marine transportation sector. The MB Denizcilik brand was devised as creatively as Bumerz was: the partners’ initials. Mecit Mert Çetinkaya and Burak both had 50 percent shares in the company, and it took them only 18 days to purchase their first vessel, which would soon become part of a six-ship fleet. The bulk carrier Safran 1 was 95 meters in length and was bought from Hasan Doğan’s Gürgem Denizcilik for an undisclosed amount. The going rate for that ship was about $3 million at the time of its purchase. For what amount and under what conditions the ship was sold by Doğan, however, was not made public. However, in a parliamentary question, Hasan Macit from the Democratic Leftist Party (DSP) gave the details of the sale as $2.35 million with $500,000 in advance and the remaining $1.85 million in 36 monthly installments.
A journalist questioned Prime Minister Erdoğan on a live TV program about the deal, asking how it was possible for a 28-year-old man who needed a scholarship for his university tuition just a short while before and who had no capital or other source of income to be able to purchase a ship worth several million dollars. Erdoğan responded, “There are ships, and then there are little ships. His is only a little ship.”
Doğan was not just anybody. He was also a close friend of Erdoğan and a relative of Remzi Gür, who had supported Burak financially during his education in London. Erdoğan would later promote Doğan to head of the Turkish Football Federation.
Mecit Mert Çetinkaya was a member of a maritime family with almost 50 years’ experience in the business. His father Mert Çetinkaya told a journalist in 2007 that he was the man who convinced Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to do business in this sector: “They were mulling over which business to invest in after selling their shares in the food company. I have been in the marine business for 50 years. We told them that there is a decent profit to be made in this business, and they decided to work with us and established the company. So we gave them an office here. We were honored that they decided to work with us.”
MB continued its operations with only one ship for the next five years. On March 12, 2012 the capital of the company was raised to TL 2.65 million, and Burak bought Çetinkaya’s shares to increase his stake to 99 percent. On December 20, MB bought its second ship, another bulk carrier, almost twice as long as the first one at 170 meters. Some of the details concerning the conditions of purchase and the people involved in the financing were captured in wiretaps that were part of the December 2013 graft investigations. The ship’s name was Eternal Confidence, built in Japan in 2002 and with a capacity of 29.905 deadweight tons (DWT). The ship was renamed the Sakarya. Although he was a partner only on paper with a non-functional 1 percent share, Çetinkaya would still continue to organize and follow every step of this deal, the wiretaps would show.
Within the next two years, his company acquired four more ships in rapid succession, namely the G. İnebolu, the Cihan, the Bosna and the Pretty, with the total carrying capacity of the fleet reaching a staggering 184,000 tons.
Five conversations about the purchase of the Sakarya were intercepted by the police. The first conversation was between Mecit Mert Çetinkaya and Muhittin Topçuoğlu on July 18, 2012. The wiretap was authorized by the Ankara 10th High Criminal Court on July 12, 2012.
Topçuoğlu calls Çetinkaya by his nickname, “Papi,” indicating a close relationship between the two. Çetinkaya starts talking about how his life is going, saying that he’s preparing for a meeting with the Albaraka Participation Bank that he and “Burak” will visit together. He also notes that the owner of the bank will also be present at the meeting. Although he doesn’t specify exactly who this person is, he was most likely M. Latif Topbaş, a business tycoon who had close ties to Erdoğan. Topbaş is the largest shareholder in Turkey’s ALDI-like discount store chain, BİM, along with many other profitable businesses and is estimated to be worth well over $1.5 billion. He and his family members manage a considerable portion of the bank’s shares.
The reason for the bank visit that will be attended by the bank’s top manager and someone representing one of the country’s wealthiest families is only about getting a loan, Çetinkaya explained to his friend.
Topçuoğlu asks out of curiosity what kind of a loan that might be, to which Çetinkaya responds: “I don’t mean me. Burak will get it, and I will also be in attendance.” Topçuoğlu sounds like he’s in awe, telling his friend he was playing really big. Çetinkaya seems to be enjoying his friend’s amazement and mentions his recent contacts: “Brother, a meeting yesterday with Ethem Sancak [a business tycoon and media mogul in Erdoğan’s close circle] and another with Topbaş today. I’m tired of this life, you know?” The conversation is unexpectedly cut off after some more irrelevant chit-chat between the two friends.
Another conversation that was wiretapped by the police on the authorization of Istanbul 2nd High Criminal Court acting under Article 10 of the Counterterrorism Law (TMK), took place on October 31, 2012, more than three months after the first one. The caller was Albaraka’s Assistant General Manager Turgut Simitçioğlu, who was then in charge of Credit Operations, Foreign Transactions Operations, Payment Systems Operations, Banking Services Operations and Risk Monitoring for the bank. He called M. Latif Topbaş from Mecit Çetinkaya’s office to inform Topbaş about the finalization of a deal over a “Turkish flagged ship,” referring to the Sakarya. The conversation went like this:
Turgut Simitçioğlu: We are currently working on the amount of the loan, and I wanted to keep you informed.
Latif Topbaş: OK. How much of a down payment are they making?
Simitçioğlu: 10.5 [million dollars] is the price of the ship.
Topbaş: I see. Is the ship in good shape?
Simitçioğlu: The ship is in good condition, they say. It was built in 2003. We are in the Mecit brother’s office now.
Topbaş:: Who else is with you?
Simitçioğlu: The manager of the bank’s central office is also here. There are three of us.
Topbaş: OK, give the phone to this brother, the Mecit brother, for a second.
Topbaş: So how is the ship? Is it good?
Mecit Çetinkaya: Hmm, it was manufactured in 2002 with a capacity of about 29.500-30.000 tons. Of the ones that we can find now… It was made in Japan, in a decent shipyard in Japan. It is the best one that we can find right now. It was already 14-15 [million dollars], and we have managed to get the price lowered to 10.5 [million dollars] through some haggling.
Latif Topbaş: Good. Let’s hope for the best.
Çetinkaya: He will pay 10 percent of it.
Çetinkaya: This is what we were saying. We are currently getting the necessary documents ready. We will [sell] it to his former company, which already has a ship [with a capacity] of 4,000 tons.
Topbaş: Good, alright. Hmm, will this ship be able to pay itself off? What do you think? Or is it difficult under current prices.
Çetinkaya: Well, it’s a bit hard. We’ll calculate it now with Turgut, and I think it will be about eight to 10 years [the term of the loan]. Under current conditions, it won’t be easy to reach the break-even point. But we’ll still try to calculate it in a way as if that were possible.
Topbaş: Let’s say you made this [the term of the loan] six or seven years, not 10. That would make it 84 months, and let’s assume they’ll pay $120,000 a month. In that case, how much could they pay out of operations, and how much from their own pockets [meaning their previous savings and earnings from other activities]?
Çetinkaya: It’s like this, Mustafa. We can now tag this ship for $7,500 a day. [He is talking about the daily earnings expectation from the ship]. On average, there will be costs of $4,000. So the remaining [profit] will be $3,500. If it happens to be $3,000, say, [the monthly profit will be] $90,000. If it happens to be $3,500, it can make $110-120,000 per month at this level.
Topbaş: So in the best case scenario, you say, if you pay $10-15,000 or $20,000 from your own pockets.
Çetinkaya: But if [the term is set at] 10 years, if we can increase it to 10 years, there won’t be too much of an impact. And it [the business] is at its lowest nowadays…
Topbaş: Is it possible that it will get worse?
Çetinkaya: I swear to God, [the daily earnings] of these ships were $50-60,000 per day and costs were $4,000. So before the crisis, they were earning $45,000 daily.
Topbaş: What will this ship carry?
Çetinkaya: It will carry any type of bulk freight, wheat, coal, dry cargo.
Topbaş: Dry cargo?
Çetinkaya: Yes, tankers are not our business. We’ve never gotten into the tanker business.
Topbaş: OK, thanks a lot. May Allah make it good for you.
In the third phone call, this time on December 12, 2012 at 11:38 a.m., which lasted about three minutes, Mecit Çetinkaya was talking with his partner Burak. Çetinkaya tells Burak that the remaining funds must be transferred as of “today” at the latest to “that special account,” a joint account for the two parties to the deal. The ship will be taken over on Monday or Tuesday, he said, adding that he already discussed the details with someone named Nevzat. Topbaş couldn’t recall which Burak he was referring to, and Çetinkaya needed to explain that he was from Albaraka. Burak didn’t understand what money he was talking about, as well, asking, “But haven’t we already sent the money?”
Çetinkaya says the money they had previously sent was only the 10 percent advance payment and that the actual transfer that was due had not yet been completed. Burak says, “We’ll send it now, and it will go into the joint account by Monday.” Çetinkaya adds: “And we will release the funds to them after we take over the ship.” Burak asks if it would cause any problem that he is abroad and cannot be physically present to give the order for the transfer of the funds. His partner says there’s nothing to worry about, since Nevzat would handle it properly.
Çetinkaya also informs him that he would have to withdraw an extra $370,000 from his personal account for the purchase of fuel. Erdoğan asks if this would be possible without him providing a signed consent for the withdrawal, Çetinkaya says Nevzat from Albaraka would only need a phone call to carry out this transaction from his account. He tells Burak that he can also make this call on his behalf. Burak says OK but asks for a receipt to verify the transaction and that the receipt be given to someone named Zafer.
The fourth wiretapped conversation was only seconds after Çetinkaya hung up., Mecit Çetinaya this time called Nevzat from Albaraka to inform him that he had just spoken with Burak about the money transfer issues and had gotten his consent to make two transactions, one for the remaining 90 percent of the payment for the purchase of the ship and the other for fuel. He doesn’t give any details about how much this 90 percent part of the payment is. Çetinkaya emphasizes one more time that the payments will be from different accounts but that they will go into the same account. Then, he asks Nevzat to contact Zafer to collaborate on the “official side” of the deal.
At this moment Nevzat reminds Mecit that Burak’s wife must also provide a deed of consent for the transaction. But Mecit rejects the idea, saying, “For God’s sake, don’t even talk about that, are you crazy?” Nevzat insists due to the fact that it’s a legal obligation. Then Mecit advises him to report it to the “higher-ups” and let them deal with the rest.
Immediately after this conversation, Çetinkaya this time calls attorney-at-law Sena Demircan Çiloğlu to talk to her about the latest situation. “What I wanted to confirm with you is that we will send the money in two separate [transactions]. The first is the 90 percent balance due, which is $9.45 million, and another $370,000 for fuel and other expenses, right?” asks Çetinkaya. Çiloğlu agrees. Çetinkaya also notes that the $9.45 million is also the amount of the loan Albaraka had extended to them. He also wanted to verify that the second transaction would be made from Burak’s personal account and that all funds would be transferred to the joint account. The lawyer confirms all this as well.
The deal was realized as planned, and the Sakarya joined MB’s fleet in a week’s time. The wiretapped phone calls show that Burak didn’t personally follow the purchase process and didn’t know whether the payment had been made or not. Furthermore, his company was able to get a loan for $9.5 million without putting up the collateral that banks are supposed to require before extending a loan, to cover the possibility of non-payment. In the conversation between Topbaş, Simitçioğlu and Çetinkaya, they were talking about putting up the previously owned “little ship” as collateral, for which the market value at the time of the phone call was $3 million at best. Besides, Topbaş learned from Çetinkaya that the business was not as good as it used to be, that it was even “at its lowest,” meaning that there was a high risk of defaulting on the debt. Still, the bank agreed to the terms offered by the company and mediated the purchase of the ship. One might argue that such a favor could only have been provided because of who Burak was.
Burak’s purchase of MB’s majority stake didn’t mean bypassing his partner completely. All the vessels owned by MB seem to be operated by Manta Denizcilik, which was, as published in the official Trade Registration Gazette’s edition of February 24, 2009, founded on February 19 of the same year. The partners are Burak’s partner in MB Mert Mecit Çetinkaya and his father Mecit Çetinkaya.
Burak’s business deals and some of his personal connections were captured in the investigation files of the major corruption operations of 2013, which Erdoğan shut down by demoting and dismissing all the prosecutors and police officers who dealt with the files at any level. Still, some of these files are still publicly available, whereas some are not. His business dealings, for himself or on behalf of his father, recently rocked the nation’s political agenda, too, with the release of the Malta files and the secret documents revealed by the country’s main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. We will continue digging to expose Burak’s secrets in upcoming reports.