Sedat Peker: Mob boss' corruption allegations trigger a political storm in Turkey
On Monday night, five Turkish journalists sitting in a TV studio repeated the same line over and over in a live broadcast with the Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu: “We are free to ask any questions we want and we won’t hesitate. We will reveal the truth."
It was a surreal scene. Not only has it been years since a figure as powerful as Soylu, a man second only in popularity to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was grilled on live TV by a group of journalists, but they seemingly did so without fear of reprisals.
One journalist joked they weren't afraid of getting arrested after the programme. In Turkey, a single tweet could land a reporter in jail.
Most surreal of all, however, was that the grilling was being accompanied by a furious live commentary on Twitter by a Dubai-based crime boss, Sedat Peker.
Peker has captivated tens of millions of people in Turkey in recent weeks by broadcasting on YouTube a slew of corruption allegations against top officials - including Soylu.
He has accused the minister of turning a blind eye to drug trafficking, claimed Soylu's son uses state power for extortion, and alleged that Soylu has helped drop charges against several people with ties to the Gulen movement, which is accused of being behind the 2016 coup attempt.
The gangster was not impressed by Soylu's response on Monday, and raised the stakes.
“You are lying fancy Sülü” Peker tweeted, using a common shortening for Soylu’s first name. “I can prove everything with proof. Wait for Sunday.”
If Soylu's interview was an attempt to calm the public and counter the opposition’s calls for his resignation, his appearances on national TV since last week to respond to allegations have only increased interest in Peker’s videos.
The mob boss's latest video, released on Sunday, has been watched by a stunning 12 million people. IMDb already has a page for his series of videos, with character info and mocking reviews.
Memes showing Peker as the host of a Netflix show have been circulated on WhatsApp. The internet is flooded with clips of his signature loud laugh, and people imitating his slow and unusual way of speaking.
Translation: Being a youth in Turkey: waiting for Sedat Peker's series instead of Netflix shows
The public's interest in what Peker says stems from his connections.
Even though the gangster was arrested in the early 2000s for being an organised crime leader, he later became a quasi-celebrity with ties to pop stars, politicians and journalists.
Adding to the interest are the huge rallies Peker held in support of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), attended by thousands of his supporters. There he threatened the perceived enemies of Erdogan, including academics who petitioned the government to stop conducting a military operation against the PKK in urban areas.
Peker was even pictured with Erdogan at a wedding a few years ago. He so far shows utmost respect to the president, excluding him from his allegations and only blaming others. There are multiple arrest orders against Peker.
The allegations surfaced as the Turkish government enjoys its lowest support in the polls since it came to power. A currency crisis accompanied by soaring inflation and high unemployment increased by the Covid-19 pandemic have been squeezing Erdogan's traditional voters into a corner.
Peker’s videos also received great attention because his tales of corruption, drug dealing and extortion in the country's highest circles are familiar to many Turkish citizens who lived through the 90s, a time when such scandals were front-page news.
Today, Peker paints a sordid scene. He claims a former interior minister, Mehmet Agar, has been running a drug trafficking and extortion scheme using state institutions (and with Soylu's tacit blessing). He also alleged the ex-minister played a role in the murder of journalists Kutlu Adali and Ugur Mumcu in the 90s.
Further, the gangster says that a yacht, worth millions and belonging to an Azerbaijani jailed for alleged ties to the Gulen movement, was allowed to be transferred to the ownership of Agar himself.
It was exactly the kind of underworld dealings that Erdogan vowed to crush when he became prime minister in 2003.
“Peker’s statements showed us that the system in Turkey [from the 90s] has been exactly maintained albeit with some small changes," Rusen Cakir, a prominent political commentator, said in an online analysis.
“He reminds us of things from the past that we don’t want to remember or learn about. Even if we learned about them we wouldn’t know what to do with them.”
War of words
Peker blames Soylu for turning a blind eye to this crime world because of his past political ties to Agar. Soylu’s fiery responses, calling Peker a dirty mobster who deserves to be jailed, have only prompted more videos on the interior minister.
Most of Peker’s angry allegations he makes citing first-hand experience. He confessed to working for Agar as a hired gun to “serve the Turkish state” back in the 90s, lamenting that he then found that “Agar had been working for his own benefit rather than for the state”.
Peker accused Agar’s son, Tolga, a current AKP MP, of covering up a rape and murder case in 2019. He also accused former AKP prime minister Binali Yildirim’s son of setting up a smuggling route from Latin America to Turkey by using private yachts. Both Agar and Yildirim vehemently denied the allegations, and said they would sue him.
'We cannot take him seriously just because his videos are popular. Popularity doesn’t provide any presumption in the eyes of the law'
- Suleyman Soylu, interior minister
Peker says he decided to release the videos not because he was forced to leave the country at the end of 2019, but to show his two daughters that he wasn’t a dirty monster but an honourable man who tried to serve the state. He was particularly enraged by being investigated for drug trafficking, which prompted a search at his house where police allegedly insulted his wife and daughters.
He also appears to have a personal grudge against Soylu. Peker keeps calling Soylu his "return ticket", saying the minister promised through interlocutors he'd secure his repatriation but hasn't honoured his vow to drop the charges.
Though the allegations are gaining wide attention, Soylu maintains the same defence: Peker has no proof to back up what amounts to little more than gossip. He also notes the series of operations targeting drug smuggling conducted under his watch.
“We cannot take him seriously just because his videos are popular,” Soylu said on Monday night. “Popularity doesn’t provide any presumption in the eyes of the law.”
However, just hours before Soylu was about to appear on TV on Monday, BBC Turkish ran a report quoting an anonymous official apparently backing up some of Peker's claims.
The official confirmed that police had mistreated Peker’s children, and that Agar indeed seized the Azerbaijani yacht. He also claimed, as alleged by Peker, that Soylu pressured the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) during his political fight with Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law and then-finance minister, before Albayrak's resignation last year.
Soylu described BBC Turkish as “a source of disinformation” and revealed that he phoned his “friend” the UK home secretary to complain about the outlet's reports.
However, the BBC report and Soylu’s statements on Monday have revealed cracks and a power struggle within the government. Senior AKP officials have been unusually silent about the whole crisis, and haven't released meaningful statements or conducted a social media campaign to defend the interior minister, who many have predicted could eventually replace Erdogan.
“It feels a bit like Erdogan and Albayrak are being spared the worst of this, and with Erdogan seemingly letting this run, it looks like Erdogan and Albayrak see this as an opportunity cut Soylu down to size,” Tim Ash, a long time Turkey analyst, said.
No doubt many of his rivals in the AKP are watching the whole thing with pleasure, because it might take Soylu down.
Meanwhile, many in Turkey are frustrated at the interior ministry, which has been accused of selective Covid measures that have hit some communities and businesses unfairly. The police, which fall under Soylu's command, have also been criticised for their enforcement of lockdown.
Soylu has also created friction by accusing the justice ministry of failing to do its job, called on intelligence to place a gag order on officials criticising him and Agar, and even blamed his own deputy police chief, seen as close to Albayrak, for allowing corruption inside the police.
After the Monday programme aired, the opposition attacked Soylu for not responding to the questions properly, saying he attempted to distract the viewers from the real story.
Yet when the minister left the Haberturk TV’s building in Istanbul last night, there was a small group of supporters holding Turkish flags, chanting his name as the protector of the country against the crime lords.
By doing so, they also violated the very curfew declared by none other than Soylu himself as part of Turkey's Covid measures.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.