A former Turkish lawmaker and long-time family friend of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev was sentenced in June 2018 to aggravated life with no chance of parole on trumped-up charges leveled by the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regime, with the crackdown on critics showing no sign of abating.
İlhan İşbilen, a former member of parliament from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) who has been jailed since Dec. 11, 2015, testified in court how he had worked closely with the Aliyev family since the 1990s. İşbilen, an industrialist and businessman, had a falling out with Turkish President Erdoğan and resigned from his party over differences in February 2014. İşbilen accused the government at a press conference of placing a bugging device in his house and putting undue pressure on his wife’s foundation.
He was arrested as part of what observers say was a campaign of intimidation conducted by Erdoğan to send a warning to possible defectors within the party. Erdoğan’s AKP was rattled by major corruption investigations revealed in December 2013 that incriminated Erdoğan and his family members, followed by an exposé on illegal arms shipments to radical jihadists in Syria in January 2014.
Documents obtained by Nordic Monitor provide little background on İşbilen, who testified at a court hearing on Nov. 22, 2016 how he had worked closely with current Azeri President Ilham Aliyev’s late father Heydar in the 1990s and helped the new republic maintain its distance from Iran amid sweeping reforms and changes in the small Caucasian country.
İşbilen was recruited by the Feza publishing company when the board of directors was looking to restructure the Zaman daily, then an ailing newspaper with low circulation. The shareholders hoped he could inject fresh life into the paper given his background in the journalism department at Ege University. İşbilen had served as general secretary of the journalism school in the 1970s and also managed the advertising, marketing and finance schools while working there.
While he was managing the corporate side of the daily, İşbilen had cultivated close relations with President Heydar Aliyev, who returned to his hometown of Nakhchivan in 1990 after being ousted from his position in Moscow as a member of the Politburo by Mikhail Gorbachev. When Nakhchivan was dragged into a conflict during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1992, creating a humanitarian tragedy, İşbilen helped run a nationwide aid campaign along with others in Turkey and delivered 250 truckloads of humanitarian aid to the enclave, located on the Turkish border. Their friendship grew stronger after Aliyev became president of Azerbaijan.
İşbilen also testified how he had a special four-page Azeri newspaper published by a Hürriyet daily printing house in Turkey’s eastern province of Erzurum and distributed the paper across Azerbaijan including in the Nakhchivan region to convince Azeris about the use of the Latin alphabet. The campaign was supported by the Turkish government as well because of the concern that Azeris could very well come under Iranian influence should they chose Persian Arabic script. The Azeri people were debating which alphabet they should choose to replace Cyrillic after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Azerbaijan gained its independence. In the end the campaign was successful, and one of the first laws passed in the new parliament was the adoption of a Latin alphabet on Dec. 25, 1991 similar to the Turkish alphabet.
When Heydar Aliyev consolidated his gains in Azerbaijan, he invited İşbilen to set up both print and broadcast media outlets in Baku. He delivered what the president asked of him. “We started informing the world about Azerbaijan. He [Aliyev] was very happy with this. He even told the people around him, ‘I have my own [biological] son named İlham and now have an adopted son named İlhan as well’,” İşbilen told the panel of judges.
At the request of Aliyev, İşbilen frequently accompanied the Azeri president on his foreign trips and offered his advice when asked. At one time İşbilen even joined the president at Davos, where he met other heads of state and government including Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller, who was attending the summit. When the Turkish delegation asked İşbilen to leave the meeting, Aliyev protested angrily and said it was in fact İşbilen who facilitated the meeting at the last minute at the request of the Turkish side and that he would stay in the meeting as part of the Azeri delegation.
The meeting, which started off on the wrong foot, became even more tense when the Turkish prime minister accused Aliyev of giving Iran assistance in refining oil. Aliyev reacted harshly, saying he had never provided any assistance to Iran in that regard and that Ciller had been provided completely erroneous information by her aides. At the end of the meeting the Azeri president promised to give 5 percent from his own interest in Azeri oil to meet the demand from the Turkish side.
İşbilen said he also visited Aliyev in the United States when the president underwent heart surgery there.
When İşbilen quit Zaman and took a job at the Samanyolu TV network as general manager, he was looking to lease a satellite to broadcast from outside Turkey as the laws at the time did not allow any private TV station to broadcast within Turkey. The other privately funded networks, Star and Kanal 6 TV, were broadcasting from Europe. İşbilen said Samanyolu did not have enough money to finance a lease from European satellite networks and instead opted for an old Russian Intersputnik satellite for a cheaper price. Aliyev helped his old friend make that happen, using his contacts in Moscow, and negotiated a competitive deal for him. As a result, Samanyolu broadcast from Russia until domestic legislation in Turkey was changed to allow private networks to obtain licenses.
İşbilen’s friendship continued with İlhan Aliyev as well. When he visited the president years later along with some 40 members of parliament as election observers, in October 2013, he and his colleagues were invited to a dinner in Baku. While everybody introduced themselves, İşbilen was personally greeted and introduced by Azerbaijani President İlhan Aliyev. “He is an old friend. He was a great friend to my father. Let me tell you about him,” Aliyev told the other members of the Turkish delegation.
The imprisonment of former parliamentarian İşbilen was not enough for the Erdoğan government, which also went after his family members. His wife, Nebahat Evyap İşbilen, a member of a wealthy industrialist family in Turkey, wanted to withdraw some money from her own account in Istanbul in 2017. Although there was nothing illegal about the transaction and she was not facing any criminal charges at the time, a government agency intervened and the bank refused to give her her own money. Later, a Turkish prosecutor in Ankara rushed to secure a warrant from a judge who authorized restrictions on all her accounts in Turkish banks and put a lien on her company shares and real estate so she could not sell or transfer anything. The only payment she was allowed to receive was a pension as a senior citizen.
In June 2018 the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court handed down an aggravated life sentence to İşbilen, who was convicted of attempting a coup despite the fact that he was jailed long before a failed coup took place in Turkey in July 2016.