Turkish national Serkan Kurtuluş, who was arrested in Argentina on an Interpol red notice, admitted that he was asked by a high-level official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to assassinate American pastor Andrew Brunson, whom a Turkish court convicted of aiding terrorism.
Speaking to Turkish journalist Said Sefa, Kurtuluş said Nükhet Hotar, a former deputy chairman of the AKP who also served as a lawmaker for the ruling party from the Aegean coastal city of İzmir, wanted him to assassinate pastor Brunson.
Hotar was appointed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as rector of 9 Eylül University in İzmir in September 2018.
He spoke to Federico Fahsbender from the Infobae newspaper in Argentina and said members of the AKP and high-level officials in Izmir approached him to assassinate Brunson with the aim of blaming the Hizmet/Gülen movement, a group critical of the Turkish government. Erdoğan accuses the movement of being behind corruption investigations in 2013 and a coup attempt in July 2016, allegations the movement denies.
“Even before the coup attempt [on July 15, 2016], [officials] had started to talk about Brunson – that he was a spy and supporting terrorism,” Kurtuluş told Fox News from jail. “After the coup attempt, [officials] created an intelligence file on Brunson they shared with me and asked me to find a young person, a religious person, who would sacrifice himself for the nation,” he said.
Ankara accused Brunson of supporting the Gülen movement and of having links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Brunson had lived in Turkey with his wife and three children for more than 20 years, most of it as pastor of the small İzmir Resurrection Church, which had a congregation of about two dozen people. Brunson was freed and allowed to return to the US in October 2018 after Turkey came under intense diplomatic pressure from the Trump administration.
While Kurtuluş has applied for asylum in Argentina, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is reported to have asked Argentine officials for permission to question him over his claims regarding Brunson, Christian Today stated. According to Fox News, he has not been approached by any US officials.
Kurtuluş told Turkish journalist Sefa by phone from prison that the organized crime network was led by Hotar and Gürbüz Yüksel, then-regional head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) in Izmir.
According to Kurtuluş, the organized crime network, which included Izmir Chief Public Prosecutor Okan Bato and Ahmet Kurtuluş, then-deputy head of the AKP’s Izmir branch, coordinated several illegal activities in the city. Serkan Kurtuluş said he was managing the criminal group’s armed wing based in Izmir, blackmailing businesspeople by demanding money to “clear their names” from charges related to being members of the Gülen movement.
According to the report by journalist Sefa, the group held meetings about the assassination in the office of Ahmet Kurtuluş. Despite the fact that the two have the same last name, they are not related. Ahmet Kurtuluş was arrested in 2018 on charges associated with establishing and managing an armed criminal organization and was released later that year into house arrest, but was killed in his apartment on May 31, 2019. According to local media, the murderer, Yener Toğa, was linked to Serkan Kurtuluş and a police officer.
Sefa also revealed witness testimony by Ufuk Gürbüz, Ahmet Kurtuluş’s driver, with the İzmir 3rd High Criminal Court confirming the revelations by Serkan Kurtuluş and group’s illegal activities. Gürbüz testified in writing that Hotar, Chief Public Prosecutor Bato, the MIT regional office and Kudret Dikmen, head of the intelligence department of the Izmir police, were all involved in the illegal group.
“They asked me to find someone to do the job. They even asked me to rent a house. A house was rented and some books were put in the house. They wanted a boy to stay there for a while. They probably wanted him to leave fingerprints to give the impression that he was living there. Of course, I did not accept this; I kept them busy to no particular end. Killing an American is a serious crime. I couldn’t say no, so I stalled. They would probably kill the person who was to commit the assassination, just like when the Russian ambassador was assassinated in Ankara. They would also present the house after killing the perpetrator and lay the blame on the Gülen movement,” Kurtuluş told journalist Sefa, Turkish Minute reported.
He explained the purpose of it all, saying: “They wanted to put this on the Gülenists by carrying out sensational acts, especially in İzmir. They also wanted to drive a wedge between the Americans and the Gülenists, that’s what they were planning.” The plan was to force the US to join Turkey in designating the movement as a terrorist outfit.
Turkey is attempting to have Kurtuluş extradited from Argentina to stand trial for the alleged supply of illegal firearms in Syria and the death of a Russian pilot in 2015. According to Kurtuluş, the main reason the Turkish government is summoning him back is that he knows too much.
Kurtuluş told Fox News that he fled Turkey for Georgia in 2016 since he “didn’t want to get involved with anything to do with killing an American.”
Kurtuluş was detained by the Argentine Federal Police’s Interpol branch on June 11, 2020 and put in Unidad 28 Prison. The Federal Court of Appeals 2nd Chamber rejected Kurtuluş’s application for release. Kurtuluş is awaiting the decision of the Argentine court on Turkey’s request for his extradition and is expecting to be provided refugee status by Argentine authorities.
Kurtuluş grew up mostly in Germany before returning to Turkey at the age of 17, where he started running a car dealership and managing a local sports complex. “He was introduced to AKP parliament members through a mutual friend. Given that he had access to vast numbers of youth via the sports facility, he said political leaders funded him to form an unofficial gang that could be called upon to take care of business interests when needed,” Fox News reported.
Following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, several foreign nationals and correspondents were arrested in Turkey to be used as “hostages” and treated as foreign policy pawns. Until his arrest, pastor Brunson was a well-respected member of his community and did not leave his congregation even after surviving a far-right militant’s armed attack in 2011.
Brunson was detained on December 9, 2016 and was held in pretrial detention until July 25, 2018. He was released but placed under house arrest, where he remained until October 12, 2018. He was convicted by a court and sentenced to three years, nine months in prison on terrorism charges but was released due to time already served. He returned to the US after US President Donald Trump made a personal appeal to Turkish President Erdoğan for his release.
The US imposed sanctions on Turkey’s justice and interior ministers over the continued detention of American pastor Brunson. Ahead of the Turkish court’s decision, US broadcaster NBC reported that Turkey and the US had reached a secret deal for Brunson to be released in exchange for the US easing sanctions.