Court ruling, gang leader shine spotlight on murky killings in Turkey

·4-min read

By Daren Butler and Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Nearly 30 years after Kurdish lawyer Yusuf Ekinci was gunned down and his body dumped by a highway, his lawyer son is still seeking justice in one of hundreds of cases of extrajudicial killings.

The killings, and the murky ties between organised crime and politicians that they pointed to, are firmly back on Turkey's agenda following an appeals court ruling and after allegations made by a convicted mob boss in videos posted on social media that millions of Turks have now watched.

The two, unrelated developments have reignited interest in suspected collusion between the Turkish state and criminal gangs as part of Ankara's decades-old fight with militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Last month an appeals court overturned the 2019 acquittal of former interior minister Mehmet Agar and security force members accused of killing Ekinci and 18 others, mostly Kurdish lawyers, businessmen and civil servants in 1994. It said the court that handled the case had not considered all available evidence.

"My father was a figure who was influential and respected in the Kurdish community. As part of a policy of intimidation, the state went outside the law in a process to get rid of people," lawyer Sertac Ekinci told Reuters, commenting on the ruling.

Ekinci called for a parliamentary commission to investigate his father's killing, saying state archives and national intelligence files must be opened up for scrutiny.

Agar rejected the case against him as "fantasy". Reuters was unable to contact Agar directly but his lawyer said he may make a statement once the appeals court ruling is delivered to him.

The ruling has coincided with a series of videos released on YouTube by gang leader Sedat Peker that make uncorroborated allegations against top officials regarding the extrajudicial killings, drug trafficking and other crimes.

PRESSURE FOR INQUIRY

Peker, who says he is now in Dubai, made his claims after a police operation targeting him and his suspected associates.

President Tayyip Erdogan, who says his 19-year rule has brought peace to Turkey partly by cracking down on criminal gangs, has dismissed Peker's allegations, but they come at a difficult time for the government, whose popularity has waned in the face of economic woes and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawyers including Ekinci, rights groups and a pro-Kurdish opposition party are pushing for a parliamentary inquiry into suspected state-mafia ties stretching back to the 1996 'Susurluk' scandal, though Erdogan's AK Party remains opposed.

That scandal erupted after a car crash involving a police chief, a lawmaker and a gangland assassin and drug dealer. Agar resigned as interior minister days after the crash.

In the 2019 trial, prosecutors accused Agar and other defendants of arranging the extrajudicial killings under the guise of fighting the PKK and those aiding the group. Turkey and its Western allies designate the PKK as a terrorist group.

Agar was sentenced to five years in prison in 2011 on a charge of forming an armed gang to commit crime in relation to the Susurluk scandal and was released in 2013. But nobody was held responsible for the killings at that time.

"There has been a complete failure to secure any accountability for these egregious crimes believed to be committed by state officials," said Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch.

"At stake is burning injustice that people have suffered for years. Prosecutors need to be able to pursue cases of this kind but what we've seen is there is enormous political pressure on the judiciary."

Investigative journalist Gokcer Tahincioglu said the claims by Peker, who intelligence agency reports indicate was once close to Agar, could shed fresh light on state-mafia ties.

"This is a process of decoding this system inside the state which has not been cleaned up since Susurluk," Tahincioglu said. "Despite what happened then, these gangs were never severed from the state."

Commenting on Peker's allegations this month, Agar was quoted as telling Sozcu newspaper that the state was welcome to investigate whatever it wanted.

"People are afraid about what they have done, not what they haven't done. Thank goodness I have absolutely nothing to be afraid of," Agar said.

(Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)