Crime boss's wild claims shake Turkish government

·4-min read

Millions of Turks have been glued to their screens, watching a crime boss tell wild stories about international drug smuggling, murders and the murky ties between politicians and the mafia.

But the gang boss starring in these videos is real, and his claims have set off a political tsunami that has unsettled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government, leaving his popular interior minister particularly exposed.

The accusations thrown by Sedat Peker at close Erdogan allies -- including a former prime minister, top officials and their relatives -- range from corruption and drug trafficking to rape and multiple murders.

Peker's message, delivered with dramatic flare and punctuated by occasional tweets, appears to have gripped the imagination of so many because of his own reputed role in Turkey's underworld.

Speaking with the air of a man who knows everything about everyone, Peker is an ultranationalist convicted of multiple crimes, including fraud and running a criminal organisation.

He fled Turkey last year to avoid prosecution and now claims to live in the United Arab Emirates, where he speaks into a camera from a carefully arranged desk and chuckles while telling a particularly juicy tale.

After only addressing the allegations obliquely, Erdogan on Wednesday forcefully defended his government's record on tackling organised crime.

"We have crushed criminal organisations one by one for 19 years," Erdogan said in parliament. "We follow criminal gang members wherever they may flee to in the world."

No heads have rolled and the position of Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu -- the anti-hero of Peker's stories -- still seems to be secure. Erdogan has insisted he stands "side by side" with his nationalist minister.

But while the allegations remain unproven, they come at an inopportune time for Erdogan, who is losing ground in opinion polls because of a depreciating currency and runaway inflation.

- 'Wicked Messenger' -

Peker, 49, has already posted seven videos to his YouTube account, each about an hour long -- the latest, posted Sunday, has had more than 14 million views -- and he says he is planning several more.

They are all meticulously staged, with a big screen in the background showing still images and a different book on the table in each episode. One of them features a biography of Bob Dylan, entitled "Wicked Messenger".

Peker has accused ex-premier Binali Yildirim's son, Erkam, of setting up international drug routes. He also alleges that former interior minister Mehmet Agar was involved in the 1993 murder of a prominent investigative reporter.

Both the former prime minister and Agar have dismissed the claims.

Turkey specialists have compared the videos to a 1996 scandal in which a fugitive mafia boss and a senior police official were killed and an MP was wounded when the car they were travelling in crashed near the town of Susurluk.

"We can say this is a second Susurluk," Fikri Saglar, a former main opposition party lawmaker told Cumhuriyet daily last week. "Maybe it's even more serious than that."

Saglar served on the committee that investigated the 1996 incident.

- 'Held hostage by video' -

Peker's anger is especially reserved for Soylu, a popular figure among ultranationalists, especially those in the ruling party's junior alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Peker calls him "Fancy Sulu" in his videos, and has vowed to "destroy" him.

Under pressure from the opposition, Soylu has given a string of interviews to try head off the attacks.

But his latest, in a prime-time television slot on Monday in which he failed to directly address the allegations, was widely panned on social media.

Peker also live-tweeted his response, accusing Soylu of lying.

Yet there have been no attacks on Erdogan, whom Peker fondly refers to as "brother Tayyip", accusing the president's inner circle of keeping him in the dark.

The opposition has called on Soylu to resign. But the influential MHP leader Devlet Bahceli came out in support of the minister Tuesday.

"Turkey's agenda cannot be held hostage by video recordings," he said.

- 'Should be heeded' -

Peker takes umbrage at being convicted of being a crime boss, insisting he is simply a businessman.

He is incensed by what he claims was the disrespectful treatment of his family during a raid on his home in April, repeatedly addressing the subject, which has led to speculation that it was this insult that prompted his videos.

And while he remains a deeply flawed witness, many people appear convinced that much of what Peker says rings true.

"It may be lacking, it may be wrong, and there may be minor mistakes, but I believe this information should be heeded," a former top police official, Hanefi Avci, told Sozcu TV channel Monday.

The videos have now been published with English subtitles by an account described as Peker's English-language channel.

And while Turkey blocked access to his website Sunday, the videos remain accessible online.

The government's concern about the impact on public opinion is clear.

When a state news agency reporter asked two ministers about Peker's allegations on Friday, he was fired the same day and is now being investigated over suspected terror links.

raz/zak/jj