Three Turkish nationals who were detained as they were trying to cross illegally into Syria to join Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), also known as al-Qaeda in Syria, were acquitted by a Turkish court on Feb. 22, 2018.
According to documents obtained by Nordic Monitor three men, identified as Gökhan Balık, Murat Şahin and Kenan Yıldız, were detained on the border on Aug. 6, 2017. An intelligence report as well as a field report filed by the border guards concluded that they were attempting to go to Syria to fight alongside HTS. The troops at the Karbeyaz Infantry Border Guard, located in the Altınözü district of Turkey’s southeastern Hatay province next to the Syrian border, caught them and took them into custody.
At their arraignment on Aug. 9, 2017, only Balık was formally arrested and put in pre-trial detention, while the others were released by the judge. Yıldız is a 39-year-old man from the town of Kocamürsel in the northwestern province of Kocaeli, while Balık is 35 and from Yalova province near Istanbul. Şahin, a 34-year-old, registered his residence as Sivas but lives in Istanbul.
The Hatay Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office indicted all three men on Jan. 12, 2018 under case file No. 2017/5048 and accused them of membership in the HTS terrorist organization, asking the court to convict them for violation of Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Articles 314/2, 53, 54, 58/9, 63 and 54. Article 5 of the counterterrorism law, which envisages a more severe penalty for terrorism, was also invoked against the suspects by the prosecutor.
During their trial the suspects claimed they went to Adana to buy a car and meet up with Balık’s Syrian wife, who was on Syrian side of the border visiting her family. They also said they stopped at the border post simply to ask for water but instead were detained by the guards.
The panel of judges who ordered the acquittal of all three suspects was composed of presiding judge Ahmet Turan Oral, Abdullah Demirkol and Nizamettin Kirli. The judges claimed there was no evidence to convict the suspects and ordered the government to pay their court costs and attorney’s fees.
Mustafa Kocamanbaş, an Islamic lawyer known for his radical views, was listed in the case file as the defense attorney for Balık. He often represents jihadists in court, including Hasan Süslü, who was detained on Jan. 13, 2019 along with other 13 other suspects for recruiting militants for HTS.
All of them were released pending trial four days later.
Only two of the suspects were subject to judicial supervision, meaning they must periodically report to a local police station or are restricted in movement by a travel ban, a measure not imposed on the others.
Süslü leads a front NGO called the Aid and Solidarity Association for the Poor (Fukara Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği, or Fukara-Der), which was set up on Sept. 11, 2013 in the city of Seyhan in southeastern Adana province.
The NGO provides logistical support to jihadist groups and their families and supplies goods and services on demand from the ground in Syrian cities such as Idlib, Jarablus, al-Bab and other places in the north of Syria where jihadist groups have been operating.
The NGO was subject to an investigation in Europe for raising funds that were channelled to jihadists. Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) is reportedly looking into Süslü’s finances.
Turkish government news agency Anadolu, which initially filed a wire describing the raids on the suspects as a police operation against HTS, later removed the story from its website.