Turkish neo-nationalist, pro-Iran figure led the purge in NATO’s second largest army

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, President Erdogan and Chief of General Staff Yasar Güler and Force Commanders attended "Joint Warfare Institute" graduation ceremony in July 2019.

Abdullah Bozkurt

 

A pro-Iranian, neo-nationalist figure who was convicted on multiple charges of torture, bribery and abuse of power is one of the masterminds behind the massive purge of pro-NATO officers in the Turkish military, a Nordic Monitor investigation has found.

Ahmet Zeki Üçok, a former military prosecutor who was convicted of torture in the abuse case of three noncommissioned officers, was identified as one of the key drivers in the purge of Turkish officers. His statements and profiling lists were used by the government in the dismissal and imprisonment of many generals, admirals and colonels. He said in April 2018 that the massive purge and detentions were led by prosecutors and police chiefs close to him. Millions of people were subjected to bogus counterterrorism investigations in Turkey, where over half a million people were detained, tens of thousands arrested and nearly 150,000 government employees have been purged since 2014.

In a book he wrote under the title “Tek Başına” (All Alone) in 2016, Üçok admitted how he personally steered criminal prosecutions in cooperation with the chief prosecutors in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. “I reached out to Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor İrfan Fidan, Ankara Public Prosecutor Serdar Coşkun and Izmir Public Prosecutor Okan Bato on the night of July 15 at 00:03 hours,” he wrote, admitting how he and the prosecutors helped purge more than 4,000 judges and prosecutors the next day without any judicial or administrative investigation.

Although Üçok had no credibility as a witness, the confidential documents show that the government used Üçok’s illegal profiling of hundreds of officers as evidence for the dismissals and prosecution of military personnel. His 53-page statement to the police in Ankara on December 1, 2014 and three-page additional statement on May 22, 2015, both of which contained allegations that a number of officers were affiliated with government critic the Gülen movement, were used against members of the Turkish Armed Forces even though there was no real evidence to support any of these the allegations.

 

Statements and illegal profiling lists provided by Ahmet Zeki Üçok formed the basis of massive purges in the Turkish Armed Forces:

Zeki_Ucok_statements

 

On April 16, 2015 the General Staff’s military prosecutor, Kurtuluş Kaya, dismissed the allegations made by Üçok and others, concluding that no evidence had been found. The General Staff made an assessment in May 2016 that Üçok was trying to curry favor with the government by rehashing old allegations and naming officers as Gülenists without presenting any real proof as well as giving media interviews in order to influence a new trial in military court concerning the torture claims against him. However, similar allegations were treated as adequate evidence in the aftermath of a failed coup on July 15, 2016 and helped in the purge of pro-NATO officers from the Turkish army.

Üçok has a long rap sheet. He was convicted of the torture and ill treatment of three sergeants — Ali Balta, Orhan Güleç and İsmail Dağ — who were detained in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri for allegedly leaking military profiling documents and subjected to 10 days of interrogation under abusive conditions including the use of hypnosis and drugs. They were threatened with death, questioned by civilians and woken up for interrogation. Güleç’s attorney Musa Öncel alleged that his client was threatened with an “acid well,” a reference to death wells in the 1990s into which the bodies of Kurds who were killed in extrajudicial murders were thrown. All three were indicted and subsequently tried in military court.

 

Ahmet Zeki Üçok, convicted on multiple criminal charges.

 

In his testimony in court, Balta said he could not remember the statements he made or relevant events and at times could not recall that he had given any statements at all. He was interrogated by Üçok, then a military prosecutor who later became a judge’s advocate. Üçok also called on civilian Gürol Doğan, asking him to interrogate suspects, despite the fact that a civilian was barred from questioning suspects in a military detention facility. Doğan, who is a retired lieutenant commander, used drugs, hypnosis and psychological pressure to extract statements from Balta.

 

TORTURE VICTIM BARELY RECOGNIZED HIS FATHER

 

On the order of Maj. Gen. Ridvan Ulugüler, the Kayseri garrison commander, the victims were denied access to a lawyer and held incommunicado for 10 days, which violated Turkish criminal procedural law and contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. Turkish law prohibits the use of hypnosis in investigations and therefore invalidates any statements extracted using this method.

After learning of his son’s detention days later, Mesut Balta, Sgt. Balta’s father, traveled 1,000 kilometers to see his son but was denied a visit on Sunday, March 8, 2009. He went back to the base the next day with his lawyer, insisting on seeing his son. He was told to contact to Üçok, who said on the phone that visits were allowed only on Sundays. The father challenged him, saying yesterday was a Sunday and he was not allowed to see his son.

 

Complaint filed by the torture victim’s father, Mesut Balta:

Mesut_Balta_complaint

 

The next Sunday, Balta went back to the base but was told that he could not see his son again under orders from Üçok. He refused to leave and was eventually granted a 20-minute visit to his cell. “When I entered his cell, he was sitting on his bed with his legs crossed. The boy did not even turn his head to look at me or the person accompanying me in the room. When I approached him, he noticed me and said “Oh, dad, you made it!” then again lapsed into silence in the same sitting position,” the father said in recounting his visit.

The father asked him what had happened and told him get up, but Balta was unresponsive. He patted him on the back to shake him up, but the son remained quiet and maintained his dull, meaningless stare. The father wanted to shut the door for a private talk in the hope that his son would be willing to talk to him, but the guard refused. The son did not talk much, only said he was being punished in a disciplinary action and would be back to his job in three weeks. From time to time he looked in other directions, laughing uncontrollably. “When I was leaving, i told myself this was not my son,” the father said in his complaint, immediately filing petitions with the authorities to refer his son to a university hospital to check his psychological well-being. “I did not trust military doctors,” the father recalled after filing the complaint with the Kayseri Public Prosecutor’s Office on April 6, 2009.

 

The complaints filed by the three torture victims in the Col. Üçok case:

Complaints_victims

 

The sergeants were accused of leaking information that showed Ulugüler, the commander of the base where the sergeants were deployed, illegally blacklisted nine neighborhoods, 22 cafes, six restaurants, hotels, seven music houses and all pubs and brothels in Kayseri, prohibiting privates from entering these venues. Ulugüler ordered that the information be conveyed to privates verbally and not in writing on December 31, 2008. The discriminatory ban in the city created an uproar and was criticized as unjustified, pervasive and too broad, embarrassing the Turkish Armed Forces. After spending days in unlawful detention, Balta was formally arrested on March 17, 2009 and stayed in pre-trial detention until December 29, 2009. He and his colleagues were acquitted of all charges in the end, but the saga took a terrible toll especially on Balta, who has continued to suffer from post-traumic symptoms.

The Ministry of Defense weighed in on the torture allegations after two parliamentary committees asked the government to look into the allegations in April 2009. The ministry immediately sent a letter to the Air Force Command prosecutor’s office asking for an explanation to questions raised by the committees.

 

The Ministry of Defense took an interest in the torture case when it was brought to the attention of the parliamentary committees: 

Defense_Ministry_torture

 

Turkish prosecutors charged both Üçok and Doğan with torture and other unlawful activities. Doğan testified to prosecutors as part of the investigation launched into the incident by the Kayseri Public Prosecutor’s Office and revealed it was Üçok who wanted him to extract statements from the three soldiers using hypnosis. “Üçok asked me whether I could read people’s minds and invited me to Kayseri. I received training on the use of hypnosis when I was at the military academy. I did not know that what I did was an offense,” Doğan said. He was arrested by the court on January 12, 2010.

 

Gürol Doğan, a retired lieutenant commander who used torture on the victims.

 

Doğan was convicted of torture and sentenced to jail time:

Gurol_Dogan_conviction

 

In June 2010 a report prepared by the Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK) confirmed that the three NCOs were interrogated while under the influence of drugs and hypnosis. The report was announced by the Kayseri 2nd High Criminal Court during a hearing in the trial of Doğan, who denied using such methods in this case. Doğan was sentenced to nine years in prison at the end of the trial in June 2010.

 

The Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK) report confirmed the torture allegations:

Ali_Balta_forensic_council_report

 

On November 23, 2010 Turkish prosecutor Murat Çimen indicted Üçok for torture, violation of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) by using “hypnosis and drugs” during the interrogation and detaining the three NCOs without informing them of their rights. The indictment was referred to the Kayseri 1st High Criminal Court. The prosecution claimed that Üçok promised the NCOs that if they admitted to the charges they faced, they would be released and would be recommended to the General Staff for promotion to commissioned officers but threatened them with expulsion from the military should they fail to act in line with his advice.

The prosecution said the three NCOs, particularly Ali Balta, were forced to sign admission-of-guilt documents under pressure from hypnosis expert Doğan. Üçok was also accused of “maltreatment to the point of influencing the suspect’s statement, and physical and emotional intervention by using methods such as exhausting the subject.” The prosecution said confessions given under torture or hypnosis are invalid under Article 148 of the CMK, saying any declaration of the suspect should be made of their own free will.

To avoid conviction, Üçok sent falsified records to the Kayseri Penal Court. He had written to the court that the sergeants were taken into custody on March 7 and that the period of their detention was extended three times: on March 8, 9 and 10. However, according to the records produced by Sgt. Balta, the sergeants were taken into custody on March 4.

 

Torture victim Ali Balta was cleared of charges: 

Drop_prosecution_victims

 

On October 7, 2011 Balta was acquitted of all charges by the Air Forces Military Court. Presiding judge Maj. Erdem Orduoğlu said the defendant was cleared of all charges, paving the way for his return to military duty in line with the request of Air Forces Military Prosecutor Maj. Ali Fuat Kumral, who asked for the acquittal. The decision was upheld by the Military Supreme Court of Appeals on January 27, 2012, rejecting challenges filed by Üçok and garrison commander Ulugüler, who both separately filed motions contesting the acquittals.

In November 2009 Üçok, was demoted and reappointed as a disciplinary officer by the Turkish Armed Forces when he was in custody. On April 17, 2012 the Kayseri 2nd High Criminal Court convicted him of torture and sentenced him to seven-and-a-half years in prison. The ruling was upheld by the 8th Chamber of the Supreme Court of Appeals. In September 2012 he was also sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment in the Ergenekon coup plotting case.

 

Balta’s acquittal was upheld by the appeals court despite a challenge by Col. Üçok:

Supreme_Military_Appeal_COurt_upheld_Balta_decision

 

FALSIFICATION OF MEDICAL REPORTS

 

On September 25, 2009 Üçok was taken into custody for issuing false medical reports for celebrities attesting to their unfitness for the army in order to evade compulsory military service. Fourteen other people were also detained together with the colonel. The group charged celebrities between TL 5,000 and 50,000 for false medical reports that showed clients as suffering from “epilepsy,” “tuberculosis” and “heart-related problems.”

The prosecution demanded a jail sentence of up to 10 years for each suspect. The 247-page indictment mentioned 17 suspects and accused the suspects of involvement in 60 false medical reports, holding Üçok responsible for all of them. In April 2013 he was sentenced to nine years, seven months in prison on charges of forging documents to provide fake health reports to his clients for exemption from compulsory military service.

 

LAND FIXING DEAL

 

In September 2009 he was also implicated in corrupt land deals in Istanbul for the sale of a valuable parcel along the proposed route of a third bridge to be built connecting Asia and Europe, the sale of which had been forbidden by law. Üçok and his cronies were offered TL 4.5 million by businesswoman Sibel Çarmıklı — who was the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) mayoral candidate in the Beşiktaş district in the March 29, 2009 elections. Üçok promised to arrange the lifting of a no-sale decision on the land in exchange for a bribe. The investigation revealed that Üçok deliberately placed a lien on the land as a military zone in order to extract bribes from developers and owners.

 

Newspaper clipping about a trial concerning a land fixing scandal, showing that Üçok deliberately placed a lien on the land as a military zone in order to extract bribes from developers and owners.

 

Police had footage proving the two met at a restaurant along with two other people. The footage was obtained by two undercover police officers in the restaurant who were seated right next to the table where Üçok and Çarmıklı sat and talked. Police used hidden cameras and microphones to record the conversation and capture video. The investigation into Üçok’s alleged gang was launched by the Istanbul Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in August 2008. Photographs and video footage obtained during the investigation formed the backbone of the charges against Üçok and others who were charged with membership in an organization established to commit crimes.

 

INTIMIDATION OF JOURNALIST

Üçok also harassed Güngör Ergün, a newsroom director at the Bugün daily, threatening to get search warrants for his house and office. Ergün was called to deliver “witness” testimony by Col. Üçok regarding a news piece that appeared in Bugün on July 15, 2009. The daily reported that Üçok had been penalized for “damaging the reputation of his profession” over allegations that he was involved in a land purchase scam in Ankara’s Çankaya district. He was also issued a written reprimand for falsification of an identification document belonging to Col. Mehmet Çelik, a military prosecutor who was the subject of an investigation for assault with a deadly weapon. The story was based on information from military judicial inspectors and approved by the Defense Ministry.

Col. Üçok launched an investigation, despite being a party to the incident, into what he termed the crime of “leaking a confidential military document to the press.” Ergün was called to testify and was interrogated by Üçok. As Ergün entered the prosecutor’s chambers, Çelik stood in front of the door, despite not being authorized to be present in any interrogation room due to his demotion as punishment following the investigation into his misdeeds. Çelik asked Ergün to hand him all the original documents for the newspaper stories about him and Üçok, saying that otherwise, search warrants would be issued for his home and the newspaper’s offices.

Üçok was trying to prevent articles about him from being published by exerting pressure, despite being charged with two felonies. The newspaper reported that Üçok was being investigated on the additional charges of “establishing a criminal organization for individual benefit; giving and accepting bribes.”

 

INDIECTED BY MILITARY PROSECUTORS AS WELL

In addition to multiple charges filed by civilian prosecutors, in April 2011 the Military Prosecutor’s Office also filed a case against Üçok on charges of abuse of power and sought his prohibition from working in any public agency. The indictment is mostly based on a report by Defense Ministry inspectors, who had been carrying out a disciplinary investigation of Üçok. The inspectors discovered irregularities in the investigations carried out by Üçok when he was a military prosecutor with the Air Forces Command. The 84-page indictment prepared by Lt. Col. Yaşar Yüce accused Üçok of illegally conducting an investigation into the three soldiers in Kayseri and ordering searches of the offices and houses of individuals without a court order. According to the indictment, the colonel also illegally used his official car for personal purposes on numerous occasions. Üçok was accused of acting against the regulations in the detention and interrogation of individuals during the course of investigations he carried out.

 

Indictment filed against Üçok:

Zeki_ucok_torture_indictment

 

STIFFLED INVESTIGATION INTO MOLES

According to a statement provided to the Istanbul court by retired military judge Col. Emin Hakan Özbek, his colleague Üçok covered up a past investigation into military officers who discussed shooting down Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). He claimed he was the one who insisted an investigation be carried out into two military officers serving in the Turkish Air Forces who referred to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) members as “our own” in a wiretapped telephone conversation and asked to shoot down UAVs or change their flight plans because they were causing too much damage to PKK terrorists.

“It was I who first discovered who those officers were. One of them was Ali Semih Çetin, who was a colonel at the time. I forwarded an investigation file to the military prosecutor’s office at the General Staff because the office had the authority to investigate such incidents, according to the law. The prosecutor’s office objected to it [the launch of an investigation into the two officers], but I resisted [the investigation being shelved]. The file remained at the prosecutor’s office,” Özbek said in a petition to the court as he tried to explain his role in the reshuffling of the file.

 

Aerial images obtained from Heron UAVs showing terrorists approaching a Turkish military outpost ahead of an attack in 2010.

 

The prosecutor’s office assigned Üçok to deal with the investigation into the officers, according to Özbek. Üçok heard one of the officers as a “witness” and released the other after a brief interrogation. No legal action was taken against the officers.

A transcript of phone conversations between two air forces officers made its way into the Turkish media in July 2010. In the transcript one of the officers says there are major problems stemming from the Herons deployed in the southeastern province of Batman. One officer who referred to PKK militants as “our own men” requested that Turkey’s Herons be crashed. “The problem is, you know, the vehicle is monitoring the area in Batman. It is sourcing clear images and information [about terrorists]. If possible, we should render them ineffective. If not, we should play with its images and coordinates system,” he said, and added: “In past incidents, there were many [PKK] losses. I faced serious pressure [from the terrorist organization]. Do what’s necessary, OK?” The other officer assured him the problem would be fixed.

 

Üçok tried to hush up illegal profiling activity in Kayseri province by Maj. Gen. Ridvan Ulugüler:

Profiling_Kayseri

 

A conversation on October 10, 2007 was intercepted by Turkish intelligence agency MIT, which referred it to the Land Forces Command for them to follow up on. The land forces commander (at the time Gen. Ilker Başbuğ) gave the order to investigate the incident, on Oct. 28, 2007. Military prosecutor Naci Dalkılıç was assigned to the investigation and, using gendarmerie and police resources, ascertained the identities of the two air forces officers on the call. It was determined that the man who referred to the PKK militants as “our own men” and requested that Turkey’s Herons be crashed was pilot and 1st Lt. Fırat Çetinkaya, and that he was speaking to fellow pilot Lt. Col. Selami Selçuk Çakmaklı — who assured him the problem would be fixed. The two officers who had the conversation were also suspects in an investigation into Revolutionary Headquarters, a leftist militant group within the military organized by Workers’ Party (İP) leader Doğu Perinçek, who now leads the Homeland (Vatan) Party.

Üçok did not touch the file until July 2009, and the case file itself only says that he heard testimony from Çetinkaya as a suspect, and that the latter was not taken into custody. In addition, it has been learned that Üçok heard testimony from Çakmaklı as a witness instead of as a suspect and that no court filing was made in his case, either.

Üçok notified the Land Forces Command on September 23, 2008 that he had taken over the Heron officers’ file, but instead of merging it with the Revolutionary Headquarters investigation, he kept it as a separate investigation. He let the file sit until July 2009. The case was taken over by prosecutor Özbek after Üçok was arrested. He was shocked to see that no real investigation into the allegations had been conducted by his predecessor. Özbek declared the case outside his jurisdiction, saying the General Staff Prosecutor’s Office should deal with it.

However, General Staff Military Judge Maj. Yaşar Yüce dismissed the case in April on the grounds that the identity of the suspects had not been clarified in the referral. The case was then sent to the Defense Ministry’s Judicial Affairs Directorate, which would ultimately decide which prosecutor’s office should follow the case. The directorate ruled that Yüce should take the case.

Lt. Col. Çakmaklı had previously been arrested on charges of “acquiring classified information” after a confidential MİT document was found on his computer. He was arrested in March 2003 but was released after appealing his arrest.

 

STRUCK A DEAL WITH ERDOĞAN

 

After a secret deal was struck between Perincek’s neo-nationalist group and Erdoğan’s Islamists, Üçok’s legal troubles were whitewashed as well. He was the subject of 46 administrative and judicial investigations and served nearly five years in jail. In total, he received 43 years, five months in prison on bribery, fraud, forgery of official documents, abuse of power, torture and plotting charges. He was stripped of his rank and forced into retirement in 2013.

Yet he was enlisted as a government point man in 2014 to prepare lists of pro-NATO officers and those who were alleged to be affiliated with the Gülen  movement, a critic of the government. In exchange for his services, the Erdoğan government orchestrated his release from prison on June 30, 2014 and arranged a new trial for him in the torture case. The new court, staffed with the government loyalists and neo-nationalists, acquitted him of torture charges in November 2018.

 

The General Staff report on false accusations raised by Üçok.

 

However, there appears to have been a falling out between Üçok and the then-military and defense leadership. In his profiling data Üçok also listed Hulusi Akar, the defense minister and former chief of general staff, as well as Yaşar Güler, the current chief of general staff, as affiliated with the Gülen movement. Güler drafted a special report about Üçok’s criminal background and shared it with media outlets in order to prevent him from smearing and undermining the Turkish Armed Forces.

In June 2020 he was convicted of libel against Akar and sentenced to six months, seven days in jail. The sentence was subsequently commuted.

 

Yaşar Güler, the current chief of General Staff, was profiled as a Gulenist by Col. Ucok.

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