A notorious, battle-hardened Turkish militant who hijacked a Russian-Turkish operated Ro-Ro ferry bound for Sochi, stormed a five-star hotel in Istanbul and built an organized crime syndicate was freed from the grasp of the criminal justice system by the government of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Not only was Muhammet Emin Tokcan, a 50-year-old Turkish national of Abkhazian descent who has a long criminal record, rescued from the criminal justice system, but the prosecutors and police chiefs who investigated him were punished with unlawful dismissal and imprisonment on trumped-up charges. The case of Tokcan is yet another example of how militants and organized crime bosses continue to thrive in Turkey with the hands of the judiciary tied and the entire legal system subordinated to Turkey’s one-man rule.
According to statements made by Tokcan in an interview with Turkish TV in January 2016, he has ways to communicate with Erdoğan and sends messages to him whenever he wants. He is both a nationalist and a religious figure who is an ardent supporter of the current government. He claimed he was victimized by the law enforcement agencies that investigated him because of his close ties to Erdoğan’s office.
Tokcan is no ordinary figure, and many see him as a hero for what he has done. He went to Chechnya and fought against the Russians in 1994 in the first Chechen war and later led a group of hijackers who held passengers hostage on a ferry that was to depart the Black Sea port of Trabzon for Sochi in Russia on Jan. 16, 1996. Along with Tokcan, Turkish nationals Tuncer Özcan, Sedat Temiz, Erdinç Tekir, Ertan Coşkun and Ceyhan Molla Mehmetoğlu; Abkhazian national Roki Gitsba; and Chechen nationals Ramazan Zubareyev and Viskhan Abdurrahmanov were involved in the hijacking.
The hijackers held 177 passengers and 55 crewmembers on board the Panamanian-flagged Avrasya as hostages in an attempt to provoke a clash with the Russian navy in Russian waters and become martyrs. They were prepared to die in order to publicize the situation of the Chechens in Russia and to demand the release of Chechen fighters under siege by Russian forces in Dagestan. Tokcan was convinced by Turkish and Chechen authorities and eventually diverted the ferry to Istanbul. All the suspects were arrested after the 72-hour crisis was resolved with no causalities except that harbor security chief Rahmi Tunca, who tried to intervene, was shot in the leg by the militants. The suspects were later tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years, 10 months and 20 days in prison.
Public sympathy for the militants, especially from religious and nationalist circles, was significant in the aftermath of the hijacking. Then-Justice Minister Şevket Kazan from the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) even visited Tokcan and his friends in jail, drawing criticism from some. What is more, in an unusual move, most suspects were jailed in minimum security prisons, and they escaped under suspicious circumstances. For example, Tokcan escaped from a prison in the town of Dalaman on Oct. 3, 1997 and fled to Abkhazia.
Likewise, Gitbsa and Zubareyev broke out of a high-security and secluded prison on Imralı Island, Coşkun from an Ankara prison and Abdurrahmanov fled while undergoing a medical checkup at Bursa State Hospital. The entire saga prompted questions about who in the state establishment was protecting them. In a book he later wrote, Tokcan said he would have blown the ferry to bits if there were only Russians onboard. The passenger manifesto showed roughly half of the passengers were from Turkey.
Tokcan’s father Adil and elder brother both moved to Abkhazia in the early 1990s. His brother enlisted as a soldier and fought against the Georgian army, settling and marrying there after the war. Adil, a cleric, later assumed the post of religious affairs director in Abkhazia. In the meantime, back in Turkey, Tokcan was trained as a commando in 1991 by the Turkish military, which deployed his mobile unit against separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants in southeastern Turkey. After his discharge from military service, he went to Caucasia and fought against the Georgian army for Abkhazian forces and later against Russia for the Chechens. He was close to Shamil Salmanovich Basayev, a Chechen Islamist militant who led the Chechen movement.
Tokcan was arrested at Atatürk Airport in Istanbul on April 29, 1999 while trying to board a plane bound for Kosovo with a fake passport to join the fight against the Serbians. He was released on Dec. 23, 2000 after an amnesty bill was approved by parliament. On April 22, 2001, three months after his release, Tokcan led a raid on the Swissôtel in Istanbul to protest Russian actions in Chechnya. Armed with AK-47s and handguns, he and his gang raided the hotel where foreign guests were staying and held them hostage for 12 hours before surrendering themselves to authorities.
He was sentenced to 12 years, 10 months in prison for this raid after a trial heard by the Istanbul 1st High Criminal Court. His accomplices, Ali Tokcan, Ramazan Karabulut, Yalçın Şahin, Yüksel Özdemir, Fahri Demir, Hayri Kadı, Hayati Ak, Atilla Kivik, Bünyamin Kivik, Serdal Seferoğlu and Mehmet Yapıcı, were sentenced to three years, 10 months and 20 days, while Emin Taş received eight years, 20 days. Tokcan was released on parole in 2009. Turkish state-run TV network TRT ran a series titled “Ayrilik” in 2014 portraying the raid as heroic to the Turkish audience.
In 2010 he and his gang were intercepted by a routine police check and were briefly detained for arms possession. During questioning at the police station, they were flagged by the organized crime unit after their evasive responses. A secret investigation was launched into Tokcan and his network by the prosecutors, and their communications were wiretapped with an authorization from the courts. It took two years for the investigators to build a case against him and his accomplices.
On May 29, 2012 Tokcan and 41 other suspects were detained as part of a police operation against their organized crime network in Istanbul on the orders of Turkish prosecutor Sadrettin Sarıkaya, whose nine-month-long investigation revealed the gang was involved in murder plots, kidnapping, threats and racketeering. Seventeen of them were formally arrested at their arraignment. During the raids police seized 30 handguns and one MP-5 semi-automatic machine gun. Among the alleged plots were murder plans targeting Jewish businesspeople.
In February 2013 Tokcan and the other suspects were indicted on multiple charges including illegal gun trafficking, possession of unlicensed firearms, kidnapping, influence peddling and looting in 13 separate instances. The prosecutor asked for up to 25 years in prison for Tokcan and his associates.
In April 2014 Tokcan filed a complaint against the prosecutors and police investigators who had looked into his organized crime syndicate, claiming that he was targeted by the special team of investigators because of his affection and support for Erdoğan. He claimed the same team that investigated Erdoğan’s corruption network that was exposed in December 2013 also set their sights on him. The complaint was publicized by the Sabah daily, owned by Erdoğan’s family. As a result, Tokcan and his brother Ali were released from pre-trial detention in June 2014.
To pay his debt to President Erdoğan, Tokcan established the New Ottomans: Caucasian Association for the 2023 Goal (Hedef 2023 Kafkasyalılar Derneği: yeni Osmanlilar) on Nov. 22, 2014, echoing the same goal set out by Erdoğan in his election campaign for celebrating the centennial of the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Erdoğan advisor Hürriyet Ersoy attended the inauguration ceremony held at Istanbul’s Divan Hotel. In the 2015 elections, he even applied to run for parliament on Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ticket from his home province of Düzce.
Tokcan and his gang continue to operate with political cover provided by the Erdoğan regime, enlisted as contractors when the government wants something done off the book. He is continually enriched thanks to lucrative deals his family receives from the government. In December 2017 his brother Kurtuluş was awarded a contract to operate the Gölcük Nature Park for 22 years, the lakes and forests of which are situated on government land.
In the meantime, prosecutor Sarıkaya, head of the organized crime unit Nazmi Ardic, deputy head of the counterterrorism unit Hayati Başdağ and deputy provincial police chief in Istanbul Ali Fuat Yılmazer, who were all involved in the investigation and prosecution of Tokcan, were later jailed on trumped-up charges by the government.