Turkish mafia war leaves trail of killing and suspicion

A murder on a busy Istanbul boulevard has exposed a web of ties linking Iranian and Turkish drug barons, politicians, an outlawed religious group, and a string of murders from Dubai to Turkey, Panama and Canada.

İlhan Ünğan, a suspected Turkish mobster, was gunned down last week while walking to his car where his wife and son were waiting for him. He had fled to Belgium when an arrest warrant was issued for him for ordering the killing of the daughter of a rival Iranian mobster, Naji Sharifi Zindashti. Ünğan then secretly returned to Turkey using a fake ID.

Some in the Turkish media said the chain of events that led to the killing of Ünğan was reminiscent of the infamous Susurluk scandal, which followed a 1996 car crash that exposed state officials using mafia gangs to carry out killings and gave rise to the phrase “the deep state”.

Despite being wanted, Ünğan was comfortable enough to have breakfast with his family in one of the busiest places in Istanbul. The gunmen who shot him from a car with a foreign license plate also felt able to carry out the hit in broad daylight.

The murder was not even unexpected. Just 10 days before, Ünğan’s brother Orhan Ünğan, said in his trial for involvement in the murder of Zindashti’s daughter that he had been told the Iranian gang leader had hired gunmen for the assassination.

The Turkish public heard the name Zindashti for the first time in 2007 when he was arrested in Istanbul’s Büyükçekmece district and police seized 75,300 kg of heroin. Experts say Turkey is a key staging post in the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan, though Iran to Europe.

Zindashti was mysteriously released in August 2010 and months later became a witness in the Ergenekon trials, a chain of arrests and prosecutions against what prosecutors said was a conspiracy to bring down the government by a rogue, secularist nationalist group made up of hundreds of people within the media, civil service and security forces.

Zekeriya Öz, the chief prosecutor of the Ergenekon trials, was praised at the time by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its supportive media. Today, Öz is wanted for membership of the Fethullah Gülen movement, a secretive religious sect formerly allied to the AKP, but now accused of carrying out the 2016 coup attempt.

Some sources say Zindashti was freed after Öz visited him in prison and offered to release him in return for his testimony. As a result of Zindashti’s information, police seized 2.1 tonnes of drugs on a ship and in a depot in Greece reportedly linked to another drug lord, Çetin Koç, also originally from Iran. Koç allegedly then hired the Ünğan brothers to kill Zindashti.

In September 2014, Zindashti’s daughter Arzu Sharifi Zindashti and her driver, Devrim Öztunç, were shot dead in Istanbul’s Büyükçekmece. In December 2014, Turkish-Dutch citizen Murat Garki, a known criminal, was gunned down in Amsterdam. In the same month, Hacı Osman Sezen and Turgay Akar, reportedly gunmen hired by the Ünğans to kill Zindashti, were shot dead in Istanbul. Again in December 2014, Ali Ekber Akgün, another drug dealer linked to the Netherlands, was killed in Istanbul. Fellow drug dealer Sjaak Burger, who was in prison with Akgün for more than three years, was shot dead a month later in Panama.

In May 2016, Çetin Koç was killed in Dubai by two gunmen using a silencer. One of the gunmen is thought to be a Canadian national of Columbian origin who came to Dubai on the day of the killing and left right afterwards. According to reports, this gunman was later killed in Canada, while Zindashti abducted Koç’s brother in Iran, but then released him following mediation by three important local tribes. 

Meanwhile, Orhan Ünğan was arrested in August 2015 in Amsterdam, with a fake Serbian ID. He was extradited to Turkey and prosecutors demanded he and his brother face a life sentence for ordering the hit that killed Zindashti’s daughter. They said the real target was Zindashti himself.

In court Orhan Ünğan denied any link to the murders and said he had been a victim of a plot hatched by the Gülen movement. Ünğan accused two people, the former prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, and Metin Topuz, the U.S. Istanbul consulate's liaison for drug enforcement who was arrested in 2017 for links to Gülen. Ünğan said that while Zindashti was in prison, Öz had helped arrange a meeting between U.S. officials and the drug dealer. According to Habertürk newspaper, Topuz also admitted in testimony to having links to Zindashti.

Ünğan also said he was targeted because he had struggled against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Netherlands. Ünğan said Zindahsti’s relatives were killed in Iran for links to the PKK’s Iran wing, PJAK, and were therefore his enemies.

Ünğan’s lawyer was Kudbeddin Kaya, among those Zindashti testified against in the Ergenekon trials. Kaya was killed in Istanbul in November 2017 while having dinner with his family. At the time, he had been using an armoured vehicle for almost a year and was not working on any other case apart from Ünğan’s.

Last April, Zindashti was detained in Büyükçekmece with six others in relation to the killings of the Ünğan gunmen. In October, a court ordered his release saying there was no evidence tying him to the murders. The same day Zindashti got out of prison, another court issued an arrest warrant for him, but the Iranian had already disappeared.

Respected journalist Fatih Altaylı last year then accused senior AKP member Burhan Kuzu of being linked to Zindashti’s release. An investigation was launched into the judge who ordered Zindashti’s acquittal. The judge described Kuzu, without giving his name, and said the politician had continuously pressured him to free Zindashti.

Kuzu at first denied any links to Zindashti. But the media published photographs of the two together and Kuzu said Zindashti had approached him seeking help to become a Turkish citizen.

After the photos were leaked to the press, Zindashti released a video, threatening Özgür Özel, a member of parliament for the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) who had called for an investigation into the links between Kuzu and the Iranian mob boss.

Turkish police last week arrested two gunmen accused of killing İlhan Ünğan. As the web of murky ties between drug lords and those in power begins to surface, many in Turkey wonder whether the deep state will allow more secrets to become public or bury them back in the underworld.