Turkey’s mass purge victimized police chief who cracked down on sex traffickers from Ukraine

Residents in Izmir protested the detention of police chief Hasan Ali Okan and others in 2014 on trumped-up charges.

Abdullah Bozkurt

 

A prominent Turkish police chief who had investigated a sex trafficking network from Ukraine to Turkey was prosecuted for obtaining warrants from courts to listen in on key suspects, secret documents have revealed.

According to the documents, the police in the Turkish capital of Ankara were tipped off in November 2010 about the activities of an organized crime gang that was moving women from Ukraine to Turkey under false pretenses in order to exploit them for the sex industry.

The intelligence collected by the police indicated that the network was run by a man named Mürsel Yıldız, a Turkish national, in cooperation with his accomplice Matluba Muhtarova, a 34-year-old Uzbek woman, and Gülnaz Doğan, a 33-year-old Turkish woman. Doğan was in charge of the women who were brought from Ukraine, while Muhtarova, also known by the code name Zara, was responsible for managing the rendezvous points where clients engaged in sex with the women.

 

Secret documents that show police chief Hasan Ali Okan investigated sex traffickers from Ukraine:

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The point man who arranged the trafficking from Ukraine was identified only by the first name of Yuri; his aide was code named Inga. Turkish investigators wanted to find out more about the gang and identify all key suspects and therefore requested an authorization for a wiretap from the court.

The gang was using violence, threats and blackmail to coerce Ukrainian women into prostitution and keep them in the sex trafficking network in Turkey. Muhtarova frequently changed phones to evade detection and made it difficult for the police to monitor her communications. Hasan Ali Okan, deputy director of the intelligence department at the Security General Directorate (Emniyet), ordered his staff to obtain warrants from the court on November 8, 2010.

The next day, police chief Huseyin Özbilgin filed a motion with the court with detailed information the police had gathered about the gang’s activities and asked for a wiretap authorization. Judge Musa Yeşil of the Ankara 12th High Criminal Court approved the request and authorized the police to listen in on Muhtarova’s phone conversations as well as those of other suspects. The gang was the subject of a crackdown, and victims who were lured to Turkey under promises of legitimate work were saved from its grip.

 

Secret information note on sex traffickers from Ukraine to Turkey:

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However, the tables turned few years later for the Turkish investigators who had dismantled the sex trafficking network. Okan was abruptly removed from duty by the government in February 2014 when he was chief of police in Turkey’s southeastern province of Batman, along with 26 other provincial chiefs. His reassignment came as part of a government campaign of purges of state institutions following a corruption investigation that went public on December 17, 2013 and that incriminated then-Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former ministers and businessmen. The number of police who were removed after the corruption investigation became public exceeded 7,000. Erdoğan wanted to punish all investigators who exposed his dirty laundry, and Okan was caught up with the vicious, vindictive and punitive acts of the Erdoğan government, which scrambled to hush up dozens of ongoing probes that might undermine Erdoğan’s leadership.

 

Hasan Ali Okan, former police chief.

 

Among the 24 suspects who were arrested as part of the investigation into bribery and fraud in December 2013 were Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab and the sons of former Interior Minister Muammer Güler and former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan. The suspects were accused of rigging state tenders, accepting and facilitating bribes for major urbanization projects, obtaining construction permits for protected areas in exchange for money, helping foreigners acquire Turkish citizenship through falsified documents and involvement in export fraud, forgery of documents and gold smuggling. Since the corruption investigation began, the government had replaced thousands of police officers as well as dozens of bureaucrats at state institutions and offices of public prosecutors.

 

Judge’s decision authorizing the police to wiretap a sex trafficker’s phone:

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In August 2014 Okan and 31 other police officers were detained on the grounds they had been involved in illegal wiretapping. His signature on the papers showing he had requested authorization from the courts back in 2010 to monitor the sex trafficking gang from Ukraine was presented as if it were criminal evidence against him. He defended himself by saying that everything was done in compliance with law, that he followed the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMK) and that his decisions were subject to review by a judge. But the Erdoğan government was keen to punish investigators who exposed his corrupt scheme in the government.

Citing the absence of any concrete evidence against Okan and the other police officers, Ankara Penal Judge of Peace Yavuz Kökten ruled in October 2014 for his release as well as that of 17 other police officers who were detained on trumped-up charges of of engaging in illegal surveillance and  illegal intelligence gathering.

But the Erdoğan government was relentless. Okan was again detained in January 2015, this time in Izmir province where he had served for years and had a superior record for cracking down on gangs, drug traffickers, human traffickers and organized crime. Just like the court in Ankara, the Izmir court also decided to free him, citing no solid evidence in the case file against the police chief.

He was rearrested again, this time on fabricated coup charges, on December 8, 2016, some five months after the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. He still remains in jail as of today although no credible evidence against him appears to have been presented in court.

The prosecution and trial of a police chief who went after human traffickers sends a chilling message to the law enforcement community in Turkey.  It is a concerning development given the fact that Turkey has been a source, destination and transit country for women, men and children subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor. According to June 2020 report by the US State Department, Turkey was classified as Tier 2 country and accused of not fully meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

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