Mafia boss’s YouTube claims rattle Turkish government | Turkey

Turkish television shows are popular fare throughout the Muslim world during Ramadan, full of tales of palace intrigue and the criminal underworld.

This year’s surprise hit, however, isn’t fictional.

The notorious real-life mob boss Sedat Peker has electrified Turkey with a series of YouTube videos over the last three weeks in which he has levelled an array of allegations – including murder, rape, rampant corruption and drug trafficking – at prominent Turkish government figures.

The dizzying claims stretch back decades and are unsubstantiated. But the timing of Peker’s hour-long monologues, in which he portrays himself as a whistleblower, is devastating for Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose party is already struggling in the polls amid Turkey’s economic misery and criticism over handling of the pandemic.

Peker’s seven episodes to date, of a promised 12 in total, took time to register in Turkey’s traditional media, which since a coup attempt in 2016 has been tightly controlled by the state. On various online platforms, however, the videos have racked up more than 30m views. The video series, titled Sedat Peker vs AKP (Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party), briefly became the world’s top rated television show on the Internet Movie Database until the entry was removed on Monday.

Peker, 49, rose to notoriety in the 1990s, the peak of Turkey’s political-mafia nexus, when intelligence agencies were revealed to have collaborated with gangsters to carry out political assassinations. He has served several prison sentences.

On his release in 2014 the mafioso appeared to ingratiate himself in AKP circles, but fled the country in 2020 after the interior ministry opened a new investigation into his networks, and he says he is currently in Dubai. His Istanbul home was raided by the authorities in April.

Sitting at a desk in a hotel room, gold medallion around his neck and books and notes neatly organised in front of him, Peker has veered from topic to topic and person to person, offering up dramatic accounts of crimes committed on behalf of elected officials, and using legal terminology and careful signposting that suggest his allegations have been designed to build cases in court.

In airing two decades’ worth of dirty AKP laundry, Peker has also called on the country’s youth to challenge the political status quo.

“My precious brothers, my brothers under the age of 40 … You should make a new world, a new country, in this country: this country needs its 84 million [population] to be one,” he said.

“There are days ahead that will be troubling. They will make us struggle … We must unite.”

Little by little, the gangster has painted a picture of extensive collaboration between organised crime networks and top officials. His main target so far is the powerful interior minister Süleyman Soylu, whom Peker says he protected from rival factions within the AKP. He has also accused a former prime minister’s son of smuggling cocaine from Venezuela as part of a trafficking network stretching through the casino economy of northern Cyprus and a port controlled by the Syrian regime. The former prime minister has said his son went to Venezuela to get masks and PPE for Turkey.

According to Peker, one former interior minister who was sentenced to five years in jail for working with gangland figures in the 1990s was directly involved in the unsolved murder of a journalist in 1993, and his son, also a politician, raped and murdered a journalist in 2019. The former interior minister said on Twitter that Peker’s claims are “slander”.

He has also said a former lieutenant colonel and a senior official of the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) ordered the murder of a Turkish Cypriot journalist in 1996.

Peker has even implicated himself in crimes, saying that his men attacked a newspaper’s offices in 2015 and threatened academics calling for peace in Turkey’s long-running conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) on the orders of AKP officials, and helped seize assets and properties belonging to the ruling party’s enemies.

Several of the people the crime boss has pointed the finger at were important figures in Turkish-US relations during the Trump administration, according to Dr Ayşe Zarakol, a reader in international relations at the University of Cambridge.

It is widely expected that the remaining episodes will address gun-running over the border to Syria and rumours about figures buying oil from Islamic State several years ago.

While Peker has not touched “Brother Tayyip”, as he calls the president, the takedowns of Erdoğan’s inner circle make clear he is the ultimate target. The videos have only drawn an indirect rebuke from Erdoğan himself, who said last week that his party had earned credibility and brought peace to Turkey by tackling criminal gangs when it came to power 19 years ago.

But the mafioso’s allegations have had such impact precisely because they bolster Turks’ suspicions that the relationship between the establishment and organised crime has not only endured, but flourished in recent years. Turkey’s political alliances were transformed in the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt: the far-right Nationalist Movement party (MHP) , with which Erdoğan is in coalition, has well-documented links to criminal figures.

The AKP’s opponents can smell blood in the water, and there are growing calls for investigations and resignations. “Peker’s legitimacy or position does not justify silence or impunity,” Erol Önderoğlu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, told AFP.

All the men have denied Peker’s allegations, and Soylu has launched slander proceedings against him. But in a three-hour interview broadcast on the government-friendly HaberTürk channel on Monday evening, Soylu had to defend himself against the gangster’s claims. Pro-government media were silent on the issue on Tuesday morning, raising speculation that his political career is in serious trouble.

So far, one arrest has been made: of Peker’s own brother, Atilla, after Sedat said he was part of a failed 1996 mission to kill a journalist. But now that the mobster has blown the lid off what was previously a culture of silence, more arrests could be on the way.

“Today’s picture is even worse [than the 90s]. At that time, at least there was a functioning structure. We were doing our duty, we were doing it seriously. We were getting support,” Mehmet Eymür, a former head of counter-terrorism for MIT, told Cumhuriyet newspaper.

“In the 90s there was not this much shady activity. It was not at this level … The end of this is going to be political murders.”

Peker’s next video is due to be released on Sunday.

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