Looking back at the Susurluk scandal 21 years on

On the morning of November 3, 1996, police pulled four victims from a devastated Mercedes Benz along a busy highway near the small town of Susurluk. Only Sedat Bucak, a member of parliament and the head of a pro-government militia, emerged from the car alive. The presence of two other passengers, both dead, drew greater scrutiny from the media. One was Hüseyin Kocadağ, a senior official in the Istanbul police force with a history of investigating organized crime cases. The second was Abdullah Çatlı, one of the most wanted men in the world.

Çatlı, an ardent right-wing nationalist and devotee of the Grey Wolves paramilitary organization, had a long-established reputation as an assassin and drug trafficker before escaping from a Swiss prison in 1990. The discovery of weapons in the car, as well a diplomatic passport assigned to Çatlı that had been personally endorsed by Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar added further confirmation that the three men were not mere acquaintances. Official reports issued by the National Assembly and Turkey’s intelligence service would confirm Çatlı’s official employment as a contract killer assigned to target both Kurdish and Armenian militants in Europe and Turkey. Although Mehmet Ağar resigned immediately after the scandal broke, neither he nor any other official immediately faced trial.

Turkish politics changed forever as a result of what quickly came to be known as the Susurluk scandal. The lessons it imparted were as definitive as any of the military coups that rocked the country during the twentieth century, but also significantly more complex and sordid. The basic implications of the Susurluk case remain beyond dispute: elements of the Turkish government willfully allied themselves with professional criminals and radical nationalists in committing illicit acts of violence both at home and abroad. Yet beyond this shocking disclosure, there is much about the case that remains unknown. Rather than seek greater clarity or recompense, Ankara’s recent actions have continued to obscure Susurluk’s true meaning, leaving many fundamental questions unanswered.

Susurluk’s revelations validated the worst anxieties and suspicions of many Turkish citizens in the 1990s. Çatlı’s presence alongside Bucak and Kocadağ made it impossible to refute the claim that the government relied upon gangsters to commit extra-judicial killings of dissidents and militants. It added further confirmation that Ankara’s “dirty war” against the PKK knew few limits. The links the three men shared further inferred that the Turkish state and its security apparatus possessed a permissive relationship with organized crime. Taken as a whole, Susurluk demonstrated the profound levels of corruption and malaise that had set over the country at the century’s end.

The AKP’s victory in 2002 was greatly indebted to the popular rage ignited by the Susurluk scandal. In promising a government that would be transparent and accountable to its citizens, Erdogan avowed that a day would come when Susurluk’s many secrets would “be exposed in all their nakedness." It was for this reason that many heralded the arrest of Mehmet Ağar and others in connection with the Ergenekon investigation that began in 2007. The Ergenekon plot against the AKP, prosecutors argued, was intricately connected to the conspiracy that had employed Abdullah Çatlı and other suspects named in the Susurluk scandal. Ağar’s conviction, and the imprisonment of other linked to Susurluk, was taken as evidence that Erdoğan and the AKP had kept their word in building a state and government that would abide by the rule of law.

Events since the close of the Ergenekon proceedings have largely dashed these hopes. In contending that the police and judiciary had been compromised by Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement (a charge made after AKP ministers were implicated in a corruption investigation in 2013), courts have since dropped all the convictions made against Ergenekon’s many defendants. Some pro-government sources now accuse Gülen’s followers of propagating the original Susurluk scandal in 1996 (Çatlı’s daughter, for one, has since accused Hizmet agents of having assassinated her father). 

The government’s categorical indictment of its own police service and judiciary now make it virtually impossible to discern what evidence presented before and after Ergenekon is valid or truthful. To this end, who was responsible for organizing the Susurluk conspiracy and what crimes Çatlı and others committed are issues that remain as unexplained as they were in 1996. Given the current state of politics in Ankara, and the damage done to the investigation over the last twenty years, it is likely these questions will remain unanswered.