Turkey’s top court overturns terror conviction of ISIS smuggler who moved militants to Syria

Abdullah Bozkurt


Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals (Yargıtay), the nation’s highest appellate court, overturned the terrorism conviction of a human smuggler who helped Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants cross into Syria.

In a unanimous ruling issued on July 12, 2018 in case no. 2018/1348, members of the Supreme Court of Appeals’ 16th Chamber, which reviews the appeal of convictions on terrorism charges, ruled to overturn the conviction of an unidentified smuggler who was convicted on charges of aiding and abetting the ISIS terrorist group by a trial court.

The top court upheld the conviction on the charge of smuggling, however, which carries a lighter sentence under Turkish law and is not enforced in many cases. In April 2020 Turkey also approved a new bill to further reduce sentences for convicted human smugglers, paving the way for many serving time to go free. The move coincided with the Turkish government’s mobilization of Syrian and other migrants at the Greek border in order to threaten the European Union. Human smugglers were encouraged to work with migrants, and the government did not enforce the law that bans human smugglers from operating.

In this specific case, the smuggler was transporting ISIS militants to the Turkish-Syrian border by vehicle for a fee when Turkish law enforcement detained the smuggler and ISIS suspects. All were indicted on terrorism charges, and the smuggler was slapped with an additional charge of engaging in illegal human smuggling. At the end of the trial at the Kilis High Criminal Court, the panel of judges ruled on July 26, 2016 to acquit all the ISIS suspects but convicted the smuggler on counts of aiding and abetting a terrorist group and human smuggling.

The verdict was appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeals, which received the case file on March 1, 2018 and started to review the lower court’s decision. After deliberations, the judges of the 16th Chamber ruled that they would uphold the conviction on smuggling charges but overturn the ISIS charges.


Supreme Court of Appeals ruling whitewashes the crimes of ISIS smugglers: 



Thousands of militants, both Turkish and foreign, have used Turkish territory to cross into Syria with the help of smugglers in order to fight with ISIS groups there. Turkish intelligence agency MIT (Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı) has facilitated their travel, with Kilis, a border province in Turkey’s Southeast, one of the main crossing points into ISIS-held territory. Human smugglers were known to have been active in the border area, although Turkish authorities often overlooked their trips in and out of Syria.

There have been some cases, however, in which smugglers were detained and indicted on terrorism charges. But very few resulted in convictions in the lower courts. The decision of Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals to overturn a rare case of conviction of a human smuggler on ISIS terror charges sets an important precedent in Turkey’s criminal justice system. The ruling will effectively render the chance of getting a conviction of an ISIS smuggler on terrorism charges in the lower courts to zero.

The profile of the judges who overturned the smuggler’s conviction is quite interesting. The 16th Chamber was created in 2014 with a special bill endorsed by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to transform the top appeals court in the capital. The government recruited 140 new judges in 2014 and another 100 in 2018 to dominate the appeals court. The 16th Chamber’s focus is terrorism cases and crimes against the state. The judges who were named to the chamber were carefully vetted by the Erdoğan government, and the bench was filled with loyalists who came from two distinct backgrounds.


Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals


One group boasted Islamist credentials and shared views similar to the political Islamist ideology of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). They are seen as sympathetic to the cause of radical Islamist organizations. The other group that sent judges to this special chamber comprises neo-nationalists (Uluslacı) affiliated with pro-Iran Aydınlık group, led by an obscure political figure named Doğu Perinçek. The same power-sharing agreement is also in effect in other judicial institutions and branches of the government. They act in concert to whitewash the crimes of radical groups, be they jihadist Islamists or ultra-left marginal terrorists.

This is not the only ISIS case that the judges of the 16th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals have overturned. A survey of cases in recent years shows that the judges in that chamber have ruled in many ISIS cases to overturn convictions and order the release of jihadist militants. As a result, the bulk of successful ISIS convictions, already rare in the lower courts, have been thrown out by senior judges who appear to follow the lenient guidelines of the Islamist government when it comes to a crackdown on jihadist groups.

In 2014 the Erdoğan government started removing judges, prosecutors and police chiefs who were investigating radical groups in Turkey. The dismissed officials were accused of links to the Gülen movement, led by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been an outspoken critic of the Erdoğan regime due to pervasive corruption in the government and Turkey’s aiding and abetting of jihadist groups in Syria and Libya.

In Turkey over half a million people affiliated with the Gülen movement have been put in detention facilities on fabricated terrorism charges since 2016. More than 130,000 civil servants have been dismissed by the government with no effective judicial or administrative investigation, 4,560 of whom were judges and prosecutors and were replaced by pro-Erdogan and neo-nationalist staff. As a result of the massive purge, the Turkish judiciary and law enforcement authorities have become tools in the hands of the Islamist government of President Erdoğan and his allies.

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