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The mob boss, his YouTube channel and an epic vendetta

Turkey has been gripped by a scandal involving a mafia boss on the run making extraordinary allegations about the country's political elite

Sedat Peker speaking on his YouTube channel, where he has been broadcasting extraordinary allegations about senior figures in Turkish politics - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Never mind Line of Duty. Forget Hastings. The big corruption TV series of the moment stars real-life convicted Turkish gangster Sedat Peker, who in hotly anticipated weekly videos posted on his YouTube channel, is unleashing hell on the Turkish government he once supported.

Peker’s lurid allegations, ranging from cocaine trafficking and a murder cover-up to corruption, property appropriation and arms transfers to Islamists in Syria, have attracted tens of millions of viewers and shaken to the core the already troubled government of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Shellshocked ministers, MPs and businessmen have struggled to refute the detailed claims – in many cases Peker was in the room and his tirades include his own confessions.

This adds potency to the attacks that lay bare the chaotic and corrupt underpinnings of Turkish governance as Erdogan struggles to fight the twin fires of a crumbling economy and painful Covid wave – while also trying to restore broken international relations after a period of diplomatically damaging belligerence.

“These videos have finally convinced the unconvinced,” of the extent of corruption in Erdogan’s strongman government, said veteran journalist Can Dundar, who lives in exile in Berlin after he was jailed in Turkey for a 2015 story about alleged arms shipments to Syrian Islamists that Peker appears to corroborate. “There’s no longer (an effective) parliament, no cabinet, no judiciary, no civil society. But there’s limitless opportunity for profit.”

The timing is a disaster for Erdogan. While Peker’s videos reached new audiences, Turkey was drawing Western ire for weakening Nato efforts to sanction Belarus over the capture of dissident journalist Roman Protasevich. Both formed the tricky background for a crucial visit by US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, designed to prepare for the potentially difficult first meeting with president Joe Biden at this week’s Nato summit. 

The two presidents had already traded barbs over Biden’s decision to recognise as genocide the mass killing of Ottoman Armenians in 1915. Other issues include Turkey’s approach to Syria, human rights, democracy and the rule of law and the damage his unpredictability does to business. The biggest brake on relations has been Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system.

The ultranationalist Peker had promised to hold off from implicating Erdogan until after the Biden meeting, but that provides limited comfort. Erdogan also has to mend broken fences with other former allies, including the European Union, Greece, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey has also been causing consternation with its burgeoning defence industry, including autonomous drones that have been deployed in Libya, Azerbaijan and Syria. Last month Poland became the first EU and Nato country to buy Turkish drones – including 24 from the company of Selcuk Bayraktar, husband of Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye – in a move that managed to irritate both Nato and Russia.

As he tries to pull off difficult balancing acts abroad, Erdogan seeks to tighten his iron grip at home by updating the constitution with hopes of dividing the opposition and stemming haemorrhaging support by a public tired of years of economic uncertainty and bad pandemic management.

It is in the midst of this turmoil that Peker entered the fray.

Smiling from behind a big, shiny desk covered each week with myriad symbolic props such as binoculars, prayer beads and unopened stuffed envelopes, his open-necked shirts revealing a sparkling gold chain, he deals blow after blow to the government for whom until recently he was organising political rallies. He had even been recognised for “philanthropy” as he metamorphosed from dangerous jailbird to political player.

At some point, the government turned on him. According to Peker – who has served several jail terms in Turkey, including for fraud and running a criminal group – he was tipped off by the powerful interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, and escaped arrest last year – he says to Dubai. The crime boss says Soylu has since betrayed him even though he helped him defeat a rival faction in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Although he initially targeted former interior minister Mehmet Agar with claims he misappropriated a luxury marina then used for drug operations, his son for alleged rape and covering up a murder, and the son of former premier Binali Yildirim for alleged cocaine trafficking, Peker’s most vitriolic and mocking barbs are now reserved for Soylu, whom he accuses of abuse of power and corruption while scheming to become president.

Peker mentioned a government MP in his pay. He gave him 10,000 dollars monthly, he said, with disdain – he’d paid others much more.

Government and nationalist MPs blocked an investigation mostly, commentators said, over worries they’ll be acccused in their turn. Peker says killing him won’t make anyone safe, implying he’s hidden or passed on damaging information. He murmurs softly, while waving a big stick: “Don’t worry, I won’t touch those who don’t touch me.”

The government doesn’t know what to do – Erdogan was silent for weeks until ineffectually dismissing Peker’s allegations. The debacle overshadowed news of a security services victory in snatching Selahaddin Gulen, nephew of the exiled Muslim cleric and alleged coup plotter Fethullah Gulen, from hiding in Kenya.

The 2016 coup attempt was the zenith of the ugly fight that followed the collapse of the bond between Erdogan and Gulen – who helped Erdogan tame the all-powerful military. The latest spat exposed by Peker is the fracture of another alliance that stinks – between government and organised crime. It also echoes past scandals from the 1990s, characterised by organised crime, civil war, extrajudicial killings, torture and corruption.

Even some of the characters are the same. Agar was interior minister when a known crime boss, his beauty queen girlfriend and a police chief died in a 1996 car crash. A government MP, a fellow passenger, survived. The ensuing investigation uncovered a cesspit of corruption and government involvement with right wing hitmen. Nothing happened.

With the caveat that he is a convicted gangster and career liar, Peker’s allegations – all denied – illustrate how in 20 years Erdogan’s government has gone from being seen as a strong savior from that violent nationalistic past to the cornered author of a dark, nationalism-led present.

“If this were a strong government, Peker would be on the sidelines trying to make people forget about him,” said Rusen Cakir, an early biographer of Erdogan.

However, Turkey’s opposition, while more united than usual, is weak. When a potential rival, such as the popular Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, emerges, prosecutors move in. Polls say most Turks believe that organised criminals enjoy high-level protection. According to one poll, nearly 45% of government supporters agree. That doesn’t mean they have turned against the man who has survived umpteen political near-deaths.

They know, yes. But do they care?

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