An attempt by Turkish authorities to find a scapegoat and frame an innocent man to cover for the al-Nusra-linked killer of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov, who was assassinated in Ankara, was dealt a huge blow when a key suspect accused by the prosecutor of instigating the hit exposed in court the torture he had been subjected to in police custody.
Şahin Sögüt, a former employee of the government’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK), testified in court on January 9, 2019 that he was physically tortured by police during a three-day detention to coerce him to provide an incriminating statement. Sögüt was accused by prosecutor Adem Akıncı of giving the hit order to jihadist police officer Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş. Sögüt’s lawyer alleged that the prosecutor himself was involved in the torture and arranged the framing of an innocent man with a police chief. There is nothing in the hundreds of pages of the indictment that actually links Sögüt to the assassination; yet, the prosecutor went out on a limb by presenting him as the mastermind.
The evidence in the case file points out that the 22-year-old riot police officer who gunned down the Russian envoy was actually radicalized by a religious group led by Nurettin Yıldız, an extremist preacher who has often been described as the family cleric of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan because of his frequent keynote speeches at both youth events organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and conferences and lectures hosted by the Turkey Youth Foundation (TUGVA), run by Erdoğan’s family.
Altıntaş frequented lectures given by Yıldız’s own NGO, the Social Fabric Foundation (Sosyal Doku Vakfı), in Ankara and was in contact with this volunteer group starting in 2014. There were two Turkish government imams who worked closely with the killer in Ankara’s Yenimahalle district. One was identified as Ibrahim Bilal Oduncu, a 35-year-old jihadist figure, has been serving as muezzin (deputy imam) at Ankara’s Gimat Toptancılar Mosque. The other imam is Recep Uğuz, who also goes by the name Ebu Huzeyfe Turki, a 47-year-old who works for the government’s religious services arm, the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet), in Ankara’s Yenimahalle district, where the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) maintains its headquarters. None of them are listed as suspects in the case, although they played key roles in radicalizing the police officer.
Instead of going after the real culprits, prosecutor Akıncı tried to find a scapegoat to deflect the probe away from the Erdoğan government and plotted to frame people who had nothing to do with the killer police officer. The plot fell apart when Sögüt denied claims that he had contact with the assassin and said he had never admitted to the accusations despite the torture and beatings he had been subjected to. Sögüt said he still carries the marks of torture on his forehead and recalls the terrible ordeal he endured every time he looks in the mirror.
“I was subjected to intensive torture at TEM [counterterrorism unit at the Ankara Police Department]. As far as I can remember, it [the torture] took place in room No. 101 or 111, which was covered by curtains to block any visibility from outside and that was used by the police officers in squad No. 7294. I endured intense torture. In the TEM section is cell No. 2, which was located next to the window in the detention area. I was put there at around 3:00 a.m. after the torture, which went on from March 23 to March 24,” Sögüt recalled.
The police officers even threatened him by claiming that the Russians were coming with a plane to pick him up and that they would hand him over to Russia if he did not provide the statement they demanded. “They said if I told them what they wanted me to say, they would be give me a new face, new identity. But I told them repeatedly that I had nothing to do with the murder of the Russian ambassador.”
He was left in the cell with the window open during a cold snowy night and was forced to remain in a standing position when police were taking his statement, in violation of the police code of conduct for interrogations. In his testimony Sögüt identified two of his torturers by their first names, Mithat and Kadir. The police officer named Kadir told him that it would take 10 years for Sögüt to make his case heard and get justice in the Turkish criminal justice system. By that time he would already be dead, Kadir told Sögüt in an attempt to break his sprit and force him to confess to something he had nothing to do with.
The testimony of Şahin Sögüt that reveals the torture:Sahin_Sogut_statement
The police officers told him he would be formally arrested during the arraignment, dragged to prison and put in solitary confinement, which was exactly what happened. He was isolated from other inmates and denied any rights in order to keep the pressure on him for months, before he finally appeared before a judge.
Although he was detained on March 23, the police did not present him for arraignment until April 6, when he was formally arrested. He filed a complaint against the police officers for the torture and was brought to the prosecutor’s office for questioning over the complaint on April 13, but the investigation was later hushed up.
In an unusual move, the prosecutor ordered police to bring Sögüt to his office for a new interrogation on July 13, 2018, but his personal lawyer, Adem Kaplan, was not informed about the interrogation, which is a violation of the Code on Criminal Procedure (CMUK). When Sögüt protested and asked for his lawyer, the prosecutor threatened him with harm to his family. In fact, while Sögüt was being questioned by the prosecutor, his wife Ayşe Söğüt was detained by the same police officers Sögüt had accused of torturing him.
Ayşe was released under judicial supervision on July 18, 2018 and ordered to report to the police station on a regular basis. When she was on her way to sign in at the police station per the court order on August 1, 2018, the police detained her at a road checkpoint and sent her to Ankara for processing. She was formally arrested by the Ankara 7th Criminal Court judge, who said he had to arrest her because her husband was not cooperating with the authorities. Their 3-year-old boy was separated from both his parents as the Turkish prosecutor was trying to pin the blame on the husband.
During the trial his lawyer asked the court to investigate his client’s torture allegations and complained that Sögüt was interrogated by the prosecutor in the absence of his attorney. The lawyer also claimed that the prosecutor himself attended the torture sessions and asked the court to look into cell phone signals and phone records of the prosecutor in order to find out with which police chief the prosecutor had plotted to frame his client.
The lawyer also raised the possibility that the assassin was deliberately killed by the police to cover up the real trail of masterminds of the murder and asked the court to investigate whether the police officer could have been captured alive.
Ayşe Söğüt’s handwritten statement that was submitted to the court:ayse_sogut_statement
Talking about a secret witness used by the prosecutors to level charges against his client, Kaplan said he also took on several cases where Turkish intelligence agency MIT abducted people, subjected them to torture for months and turned them into secret witnesses who would says whatever the police asked them to say. Stating that the same could be happening with a secret witness identified by the code name Garson in the Karlov case, he said the court should reject such statements from a secret witness who could have been intimidated into telling a scripted story.
Another hole was punched in the prosecutor’s indictment when a witness named Salih Yılmaz, who gave an initial statement against Sögüt, later said in court that he did not actually know Sögüt and recanted his initial statement. Yılmaz also testified in court that his statements were prepared by the police during his detention and that he was forced to sign them under torture.
At a hearing on January 9, 2019, Yılmaz stated that he also had nothing to do with the murder of Karlov and was in fact in prison at the time the Russian envoy was assassinated. While he was in his cell in Tarsus Prison, the guards came to inform him that he would be referred to the hospital although he had no health complaints and had not asked to see a doctor. He was rushed to the Ankara Police Department’s counterterrorism unit and put in detention. He had no idea why he was brought there until a police officer accused him of being associated with the assassin. He was in shock.
He was questioned four times and he denied the allegations every time. In the end, a police officer said he would be tortured and threatened him with death unless he signed a statement drafted by the police and identify the people from the pictures shown to him. He agreed for fear of his life. He was even provided a written statement to memorize for responding to questions, according to this statement. “In my statement, the main thing the police asked was for me to identify Şahin Söğüt as the handler of police officer Mevlüt Mert and the man who gave the hit order to Mert. They even told me I would be released and all charges would be dropped if I give such a statement,” he told the court.
No lawyer was present during this questioning, and a lawyer appointed by the bar association showed up after everything was finished and the statement signed. Yılmaz repeated the same prepared statement to the prosecutor and a judge during the arraignment hearing. After he was sent back to prison and had collected himself, he filed several petitions challenging to his pre-trial detention with the court, stating that his initial statements were false and were coerced. When the prosecutor finally submitted the indictment in the Karlov case, he did not include Yılmaz’s petitions stating that he had recanted his earlier statements.
Yılmaz told the court that he had never known Söğüt or other people whom he was forced to identify while in police custody. He was feeling bad for giving a false statement and could not sleep at night due to a guilty conscience since he had accused people whom he didn’t know under duress during his time in police custody. Yılmaz, a teacher, was already being tried in another case over his affiliation with government critic the Gülen movement.
Salih Yılmaz’s testimony in court that recanted earlier statements given while in police custody amid threats of torture:Salih_Yilmaz_testimony_Karlov_case
There is no evidence in the indictment that Sögüt actually knew the assassin or came into contact with him. The prosecutor’s case apparently collapsed after Yılmaz withdrew his incriminating statement taken under duress and the lawyer raised credible allegations of torture endured by his client while in police custody.
Cell phone tower signals that put Sögüt in the vicinity of the assassin are not surprising given the fact that the two lived in the same district one subway station apart. The police officer also played soccer in a field some 50 meters from Sögüt’s home every Tuesday, which meant that his cell phone signals naturally originated from the same cell tower in the neighborhood.
On June 11, 2019 the court ruled to release his wife Ayşe pending trial but placed her under house arrest. The couple was accused of being affiliated with the Gülen movement although there was no evidence included in the indictment to support this affiliation, either. The husband is still in jail and his trial is proceeding.