Turkish state-mafia allegations revive memories of Susurluk scandal

A series of tell-all videos by a convicted Turkish mob boss has sparked rumours that Turkey’s government may be collaborating with the mafia more closely than previously known. 

The latest set of rumours were aroused from allegations made by a high-ranking Turkish mafia boss Sedat Peker. In a video posted to his Youtube channel on Sunday, Peker made a litany of explosive allegations that included having his men physically assault a politician critical of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family. 

Peker also alleged that he helped cover up a murder committed by a current member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Tolga Ağar, on behalf of his father, Mehmet Ağar, who previously served as Turkey’s interior minister. 

Known as a mobster who earned his reputation during the 1990s, Peker has been on the run from Turkish authorities. He claims to currently reside in Dubai, and in a previous video said the Turkish government had sent operatives to abduct him.  

All of these claims are not immediately verifiable, but they do stir memories of the last major episode that revealed a web of connections between Turkey’s government and the mafia; the 1996 Susurluk incident. Following a road collision that killed a mix of government and organized crime characters, it became known that the state was actively working together with mobsters as part of their campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

The scandal caused embarrassment for the then-ruling government of Necmettin Erbakan and resulted in the resignation of none other than Interior Minister Mehmet Ağar. 

Dr. Ryan Gingeras, an expert on Turkish organised crime at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterrey, California, cautions that Peker’s claims should be taken with “more than a pinch of salt”. Instead, he suggests Peker, who claims to have abandoned organised crime and is today a legitimate businessman, may be trying to distract attention away from his own activities. 

“I think his M.O is to speak to the media, to stir up a lot of attention away from himself and towards others, particularly in political circles, ” Gingeras told Ahval News in a recent podcast. “Whether these claims have any validity or not is hard to say. 

Peker, Gingeras notes, is not what one would call the most reliable storyteller when it comes to speaking the truth. The mobster is well known for his almost braggadocio tendency to share what he purports to be insider knowledge of the government’s machinations, which leads Gingeras to refer to him as a “creature of the media.” 

In particular, Gingeras points to Peker being the “most vocal” witness during the Ergenekon trials that started in 2008. He adds that some of Peker’s claims made during the trials back then were reflected in his more recent accusations against Turkish officials today. 

While still difficult to prove or disprove, Peker’s remarks did prompt a response from Turkey’s interior ministry. In a statement released after Peker released his video series, the ministry dismissed him as a criminal who is working against the state. 

“The slander and accusations of the mentioned person in the publications he made on social media from abroad are considered as a new organized crime activity against our security forces and our state,” it said. 

Peker was sentenced to ten years for his involvement with a purported deep state plot to take down the Erdogan government. However, Peker was acquitted in 2014 like many other suspects who were swept up in what turned out to be a completely fabricated conspiracy. 

Dr. Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies (FDD) in Washington D.C, saw Peker’s allegations less as statements of fact but nonetheless as an important reminder of the Turkish state’s historical collaboration with organised criminal elements. 

Erdemir said that this trend can be traced back to the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when the government led by the Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) utilised criminal gangs to conduct clandestine work on its behalf. One such group was the so-called “Special Organisation” that played a part in the 1915 Armenian genocide and crimes committed against Anatolia’s Greek minorities. 

He explained that many of Peker’s allegations resonate with what he says is a subset of rumours that the current Turkish state has connections with the mafia. In terms of its relation to Susurluk, Erdemir said that the characteristics of these claims are almost parallel to the suspicions validated by the 1996 incident. 

“One key mesasge is that not much has changed,” Erdemir said to Ahval News. "What we see today is pretty much the standard way in which politics has always functioned in Turkey.”