In a bizarre twist in the case of an Iranian intelligence officer who defected to Turkey, the pro-Iranian government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made him disappear after the defector gave a statement to the police and intelligence units and hushed up the probe into Iran’s operations in Turkey.
Disillusioned with his handlers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, Sepah for short in Persian), an Iranian of Azeri origin named Hassan Faraji Ghotlou, who was assigned by Iran as an operative in Turkey and Azerbaijan, walked into to a police station in Istanbul on July 6, 2013.
He said he had important information to share with Turkish authorities when reporting himself to the reception desk. He was directed to the C-section, which monitors religious extremist and terror groups in the Istanbul Police Department. The police chief on duty was Adem Demir, who took the first statement from the defector and informed his superiors, who scrambled to chart a course on what to do in consultation with the prosecutor’s office and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT).
Ghotlou, 40, told investigators in the counterterrorism unit that he had grown frustrated working for the IRGC under the growing shadow cast on employees of Azeri origin and wanted to spill the beans on covert Iranian operations. The IRGC mostly recruits from among Iranians but occasionally hires Azeris , according to his statement. He was recruited in 2010 and started working in a section dealing with Turkey along with another Iranian of Azeri origin named Siyavush Sattari. He was assigned code number 27/11.
Providing details on his past travel, he told investigators that he visited Azerbaijan three times to collect information from an Azeri national about Iranian dissidents and came to Turkey four times. In his first visit to Turkey in January 2013, he arrived in Istanbul as a businessman and waited for further instructions. He was ordered to go to a designated address in Mersin to meet a person named Selçuk, a Turkish Cypriot, who gave him a sealed package that he believed included photos, maps and other documents about Israel. He brought the package back to Iran.
Hassan Faraji Ghotlou’s police statement:Faraji1
On his second visit on March 2, 2013 he used the land border in Turkey’s eastern province of Ağrı to enter Turkey and proceeded to the northeastern city of Samsun to meet IRGC operatives working undercover. He picked up intel on secure routes to transport arms from Russia to Syria through Turkey. He again returned to Turkey on April 12, 2013 to meet a man named Hossain Mohsen in a mall in Istanbul’s upscale Etiler neighborhood.
The IRGC defector also shared another interesting detail on an Iranian spy ring exposed in 2011 in the border province of Iğdır where Iranian operative Shahram Zargham Khoei and his associates were arrested and later convicted. Ghotlou said he recognized some of these people from published photos and confirmed that they indeed worked for the IRGC. He claimed his friend Esedullah Nebizad in the IRGC had been working on the Khoei file.
Khoei was arrested on August 19, 2011 as part of the investigation into the Iranian spy ring on the Turkish-Iranian border. When the police arrested him, his colleagues and several Turkish accomplices were found to be in possession of arms and secret correspondence between the Turkish suspects and Iranian intelligence officials. Digital recorders seized from the suspects contained information on Turkey’s state security such as military posts and the number of deployed troops.
A research report on Hassan Faraji Ghotlou that verified his travels and hotel stays:Faraji2
In another crackdown on the Iranian espionage network, Turkish prosecutors in the border province of Iğdır ordered the detention of six Iranian agents along with six human traffickers after an investigation initiated on August 12, 2012 revealed that the suspects targeted senior bureaucrats and high-ranking military officers. Various CDs including footage showing local bureaucrats and officials with prostitutes, apparently taken in entertainment facilities located in Iğdır, were seized. The prosecution said many of these people were blackmailed to force them to leak confidential information vital to national security such as photographs of public buildings, plans of military convoy routes and detailed coordinates for military outposts located close to the border. Some documents obtained from the suspects were classified as top secret.
Iranian mole in Turkish intelligence and an informant at Incirlik Air Base
Ghotlou also revealed that the IRGC was alerted by an Iranian mole in Turkey’s spy agency about a Turkish intelligence asset who had discreetly been meeting with his handler attached to the Turkish consulate in the Iranian city of Urmia. He claimed that the Iranians, through their mole in MIT, learned that the Turkish diplomatic attaché, identified only by his first name, Ömer, managed to recruit Nadir Mohammed, an Iranian who was working for the IRGC. The IRGC planned to take action against Ömer in an operation, he added.
The defector further said he was tasked with running surveillance on Ömer, followed him for 20 days, recording his every move and whom he met with, when and where. He described the Turkish attaché as a sporting man around the age of 35 to 40 and 1.70/1.75 meters tall. The Turkish operative and his Iranian asset Nadir were meeting at a gym, among other places, he further explained.
Police request to obtain phone records of Hassan Faraji Ghotlou:faraji4
According to the defector’s statement, the IRGC had a mole, a soldier, at Incirlik Air Base where US and NATO troops were deployed, and that Iran was receiving intel from this mole. He said many people work for the IRGC in Turkey. His travel itinerary, entry and exit records and hotel stays were checked out by the police, confirming that his account was true.
The disclosure was significant. Gafur Ataç, head of the C-section at the Istanbul Police Department, immediately called the prosecutor on duty in the chief public prosecutor’s office to inform him about the defector and briefed him on the statement he gave. The prosecutor ordered the police chief to turn the defector over to MIT after taking his statement.
Ataç called İlker Bingöl, his counterpart at the MIT Istanbul bureau’s counterterrorism unit, as well as his deputy İlker Uysal, a MIT liaison officer with the police, to tell them about the defector and what Ghotlou revealed in his statement to the police. The two MIT agents called back some 20 minutes later, telling the chief that an intelligence officer named Izzet who was running the Iran desk at Istanbul MIT headquarters would come and pick the defector up. Izzet also called 20 minutes later to confirm he was on his way to the police station.
Judge’s ruling authorizing the police to obtain phone records of Hassan Faraji Ghotlou:Faraji3
Izzet and another unidentified MIT agent showed up at the police station one-and-a-half hours later and interviewed the defector Ghotlou in the office of the police chief. Ghotlou repeated what he had earlier told the police. Izzet called the heads of MIT in Istanbul, Ankara and headquarters in Yenimahalle to brief them on the defector. After the interview, the defector left the police department accompanied by the MIT agents. Ghotlou was put up in the Merdan Hotel, and another meeting was scheduled for the next day at 11 a.m.
The police in the D-section, which had already launched a criminal investigation into the IRGC Quds Force’s illegal activities in Turkey, including some terrorist attacks, did not know about Ghotlou’s statement. The sections operate independently of each other for the confidentiality of ongoing investigations and cooperate only if they run into evidence that may be of interest to both sections. When investigators in the D-section were eventually made aware of the statement, the D-section, under orders from the prosecutor, ran investigations to check Ghotlou’s claims and decode his web of networks. On October 24, 2013 police in Technical Support Unit reviewed two telephone records of Ghotlou starting from July 2006 after securing a court warrant.
His flights, hotel accommodations and entry and exit records at the border were all checked out by the police, verifying that his statements were true. The police identified a Turkish man named Osman Gencal, whose telephone was contacted by the defector while he was in Samsun. The hotel accommodation in the city must have been made under another name as police did not find anybody with that name staying in Samsun on March 8, 2012. But the records of three other hotels named by the defector — Sport, Merdan and Kurban — where he said had stayed during his Istanbul visits, showed his name in the registration records.
Police Chief Gafur Atac’s defense statement given during a court hearing:Gafur_Atac_statement_court
Erdoğan gov’t panicked about the exposé and hushed up the case
In January 2014 the government, already shaken by the December 2013 corruption investigations that incriminated the inner circle and family members of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan, was in a panic and scrambled to kill any ongoing, confidential probes before they were made public and before the indictments were submitted by the prosecutors. A secret terrorism case that was launched into the illegal activities of the IRGC Quds Force in 2010 and was still ongoing at the time became an immediate target. In a serious blow to the independence of the judiciary by the blatant interference of the executive branch, Erdoğan and his associates orchestrated the removal of the lead prosecutor and all the police investigators who had worked on the Quds Force investigation.
A few months later, the new prosecutor, Irfan Fidan, a pro-Iran Islamist, took over the investigation, dropped the probe, closed the case and let all the suspects off the hook. The Iranian spies were allowed to escape. Instead, the prosecutors and police chiefs who had investigated the Quds Force for years as well as the judges who authorized warrants such as wiretaps and surveillance were subsequently charged in sham judicial investigations with attempting to overthrow the government.
Later on, an indictment was filed for all prosecutors, judges and police investigators who were involved in the Quds Force terrorism investigation as well as journalists who reported on the clandestine activities of the IRGC in Turkey. Many have been jailed pending trial since 2015. Prosecutor Fidan, Erdoğan’s special appointee, dismissed all the evidence collected against Quds Force operatives, fabricating new charges against those who merely did their job in the law enforcement agencies and criminal justice system.
Irfan Fidan went so far as to claim that there actually was no such person as Ghotlou and that he was simply made up to bring criminal charges against Hakan Fidan, a pro-Iranian Islamist who has been leading MIT since 2010. Yet neither the police CCTV records nor the visitors’ logs were checked to verify if Ghotlou had visited the police department.
Police chief Ataç, a defendant in the case, asked the court during the trial for an examination of the entry logs in 2016, yet the Istanbul Police Department waited until September 8, 2016 to send a letter confirming that a person by the name of Hassan Faraji Ghotlou had actually visited the police station. The prosecutor’s case collapsed on the evidence, yet the judge continued the trial in order to not invite the wrath of the Erdoğan government.
Ataç also asked the judge to order MIT to provide the records of meetings with the MIT agents he identified in his defense statement and launch an investigation to determine if any attaché named Ömer had worked in Turkey’s Uremia consulate. The judge approved the motions, ordering Turkish authorities to respond, but neither MIT nor the Foreign Ministry bothered to comply with the court decision.
It is not known what happened to the IRGC defector in the end, but he was most definitely made to disappear by the government. In the meantime, the Turkish government also helped secure the release of convicted Iranian spy Khoei, who was sentenced to 15 years for espionage by the Erzurum 2nd High Criminal Court. When in 2014 the government pushed through a hastily drafted amendment to the intelligence law that authorized MIT to hand over convicts and detainees to other countries and terrorist organizations without a judicial review, the first thing MIT did was to release Khoei to Iranian authorities. For all we know, Ghotlou was also handed over to the Iranians or was killed.