Turkish cleric Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, a womanizer who faced indictment on charges related to sex trafficking and sexual assault, including cases that extended to Morocco and Uzbekistan, and was jailed on two separate occasions, was enlisted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to influence public opinion in Turkey.
Appearing on multiple networks to promote the Erdogan regime’s talking points, frequently intertwined with religious narratives, the 58-year-old Ünlü, popularly referred to as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, has dedicated a significant amount of time to criticizing minority groups, particularly the Greek Orthodox community, Jews and Armenians in Turkey, all while fiercely targeting Erdogan’s critics. In the process, he amplifies xenophobic conspiracy theories that have become synonymous with the prevailing narrative of the Erdogan government and its nationalist/neo-nationalist allies.
During his appearance on the pro-government CNN Turk on September 4, 2023, Ünlü asserted that there are Turks treacherously collaborating with Jews, aiming to partition Turkey and allocate certain provinces for annexation to fulfill the aspirations of the Zionists and their promised lands. Ünlü is well known for his antisemitic stance, claiming that Jews are responsible for all the world’s evils and malevolence. He propagates these views not only through national TV networks but also on his personal YouTube channel, which boasts 1.5 million followers and showcases his private sermons to his congregation.
Over the years he has consistently directed his focus towards the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate situated in Istanbul’s Fatih district, where Ünlü and his congregation have also established a presence. He alleges that the patriarchate has covertly been acquiring properties in the neighborhood with financial assistance from the World Bank, with the supposed intention of changing the predominantly Muslim district into a Christian one. He advises individuals against selling their properties to foreigners, advocating that sales should exclusively involve Muslims. In a separate sermon, he even made a prediction that Muslims would conquer the Vatican and Rome.
Ünlü also includes Erdogan’s opponents and critics within Muslim groups on his list of targets. He has consistently criticized Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric based in the United States, for his promotion of interfaith dialogue and outreach initiatives, asserting that these efforts are intended to undermine Islam. Kurds who do not support the Erdogan government get their share of criticism from the cleric as well.
The persistant campaign led by Ünlü is underpinned by a clandestine agreement he struck with President Erdogan through his lawyer, Fatih Oğuz, some time in 2012, following his indictment on charges related to sex trafficking and other criminal offenses. In his testimony before the Isparta 2nd High Criminal Court on August 16, 2017, his lawyer disclosed that he had privately met with Erdogan at the Beylerbeyi Palace to discuss his client’s case and brief the president. That agreement eventually led to the acquittal of the cleric, with Erdogan stepping in to influence the court proceedings. The acquittal came a month after the cleric met with Erdogan, in February 2016.
The initial public evidence of collaboration between Erdogan and the cleric came to light during the 2013 corruption investigations. These probes implicated then-prime minister Erdogan and his close associates in activities related to sanctions evasion, which included a gold trader laundering money on behalf of the Iranian regime by bribing Turkish government officials.
During that investigation the police acquired a wiretap dated November 29, 2013 that captured a conversation between the cleric and Erdogan over the phone. This conversation revealed their coordination of a public campaign strategy, with Erdogan providing instructions to Ünlü on what to say and how to say it, resulting in a favorable response from the cleric.
Interestingly, just a day after this phone conversation, Ünlü contacted Mehmet Fatih Saraç, a prominent figure with Islamist affiliations who held a position of authority at a major media outlet. Ünlü informed Saraç about his conversation with Erdogan and discussed the specifics of an upcoming program slated for broadcast on the outlet’s television network.
Saraç was appointed deputy chairman of the board of directors at the Ciner Media Group on December 26, 2012 following a special request from Erdogan to the owner, Turgay Ciner. His primary responsibility was to influence and bias the editorial policies of Ciner media divisions, which included the Habertürk newspaper, Habertürk TV, news websites and radio stations, in favor of Erdogan and his government. In return for these efforts, Ciner, who had interests in various sectors ranging from mining to energy, enjoyed the benefit of advantageous contracts and tenders from the government.
Ünlü frequently appeared as a guest commentator on Habertürk, where he would engage in extended discussions about current issues in Turkey, dedicating hours to sharing his views in staunch support of the Erdogan government.
The cleric is formally associated with a group publicly known as the İsmailağa community, which is characterized by its deeply conservative beliefs. This group advocates for religious rule in the governance of Turkey and operates its own madrasah. It maintains a close alliance with the Erdogan government. Members of this community adhere to distinct dress codes, such as women wearing a “çarşaf” (black chador) and men sporting long beards, robes and turbans.
Ünlü has found himself embroiled in internal conflicts within the İsmailağa community, leading to his ostracism by certain factions within the group. One of the primary reasons for his unpopularity among some members of the community stems from his contentious past and criminal record. Additionally, he faces allegations of leveraging religious discourse to profit commercially through various business ventures, taking advantage of the unwavering loyalty of his followers. It’s most likely that this vulnerability was exploited by Erdogan when enlisting his assistance to bolster his political agenda.
Part of the indictment of Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, who was accused of sex trafficking, sexual assault and deprivation of liberty:Ahmet_Unlu_indictment
A background investigation conducted by Nordic Monitor uncovered that Ünlü has faced serious legal troubles in the past. He was arrested, indicted and subsequently tried on charges related to incitement of hatred and enmity based on religious differences. On December 17, 2000 the court found him guilty, leading to his imprisonment for nearly three years. The verdict was subsequently upheld on appeal on June 21, 2001.
In December 2011 Ünlü was apprehended as part of a law enforcement crackdown on a notorious organized crime network commonly known as the Karagümrük gang. This criminal syndicate was led by the mobster brothers Nuri Ergin and Vedat Ergin. Following the arrest of the brothers, the elder family member, Nejat Ergin, assumed control of the organized crime activities.
Among the 16 individuals detained in connection with this operation was Ünlü’s driver and bodyguard. The operation was carried out by the Istanbul Police Department’s Anti-Organized Crime Unit.
Notably, the cleric was not the primary target of the initial investigation, which was conducted under the oversight of public prosecutors. Instead, the focus of the investigation was on the gang leader, Nejat, and his associates, namely Sayım Uyanik, Yiğit Ergin, Murat Tolga Ohri and former police officer Celil Yavuz, who were suspected of engaging in various crimes, ranging from racketeering to extortion. The gang was reportedly involved in blackmailing businessmen, utilizing Neslihan Önder, who was named the best model in Turkey in 2007, in sex-related schemes.
As the investigation progressed and wiretaps of gang members provided additional insight into the gang’s activities, the police discovered that Ünlü and his associate, Barış Sezek, had contracted the services of the Karagümrük mafia. Their objective was to identify the individual responsible for leaking a sex tape involving the cleric and a foreign sex worker during the summer of 2010. An unidentified individual had attempted to blackmail Ünlü, demanding money in exchange for not disclosing further damaging videos. Consequently, the cleric sought the assistance of the mafia to resolve the issue and prevent further revelations.
Victims’ statements that show how cleric Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü coerced women into having sex with him on multiple occasions:Victim_testimony_ahmet_Mahmut_unlu
The individual hired by Ünlü for this purpose was Nejat, the elder member of the Karagümrük family-run gang, who had a lengthy criminal record. It’s worth noting that Ünlü and Ergin had known each other from their earlier days, when the cleric served as a preacher at a mosque in the Karagümrük neighborhood of Istanbul. The Karagümrük gang had gained notoriety for its involvement in activities such as murders, assaults and prison riots during the 1990s, and it continued its operations in the following years.
The indictment revealed that Ünlü engaged in sexual relations with multiple women, primarily foreigners who had been enticed to come to Turkey under false pretenses. He not only provided monetary compensation to these women but also subjected them to physical assault on several occasions. Furthermore, he had his associates unlawfully deprive these women of their freedom.
Additionally, women who encountered visa-related issues were exploited and coerced into engaging in prostitution. The operation of this criminal enterprise was orchestrated by Ünlü’s right-hand man, Barış Sezek, who made use of residences and commercial properties owned and operated by the cleric for prostitution.
Testimony from witnesses and victims, along with wiretaps, physical surveillance records, bank statements, wires and materials seized from the offices and residences of both the cleric and the gang members, collectively presented a disturbing portrayal of the hidden life led by Ünlü, characterized by womanizing and questionable activities.
According to the indictment, a woman identified as Imanee Lemghari, who was 25 years old at the time, filed a criminal complaint against Ünlü. She alleged that she had been forced to engage in sexual activities with Ünlü in Turkey. Ünlü was charged in the 92-page indictment with a range of offenses, including human smuggling, soliciting prostitution, unlawfully depriving an individual of their freedom and aiding an illegal gang for personal gain. The indictment sought a prison sentence ranging from 25 to 53 years for Ünlü.
The prosecutor asserted in the indictment that Ünlü had instructed Sezek to procure foreign women for him. One of the victims, Fatima Et-Tajy, aged 27 at the time, was subjected to sexual assault by the cleric.
As the plaintiff, she informed the prosecutor that Mahjouba Demirel, a pimp, had taken her to Sezek’s residence, where she was informed that she would enter into a short-term marriage with a man for two days. She was under threat of severe consequences if she did not comply. Subsequently, Ünlü arrived at the house, where she was confined to a room and sexually assaulted by him. Another sexual assault occurred two days later at the same location and was perpetrated by Ünlü. Police surveillance records also corroborated these events, indicating that the cleric had visited Sezek’s residence on both August 22 and 24, 2011.
Sezek also facilitated the entry into Turkey of two Moroccan women, Fatima Zohra Hajjaj and Imanee Lemghari, after a trip to Marrakesh, with all their expenses covered by the cleric. These women were enticed to come to Turkey with the promise of entering into a marriage with a wealthy, handsome Turkish man.
In their testimony both Lemghari and Hajjaj informed the prosecutor that they had traveled to Turkey with Sezek and the pimp Demirel, who had pitched the idea of marrying wealthy Turkish men to them. Upon their arrival in Turkey, they were instructed to wear a chador as the men they were supposed to marry had expressed a preference for this attire. To their disappointment, they discovered that there were no wealthy men awaiting them. Instead, they were introduced to a cleric in his late 40s.
After a quick, private religious ceremony, Ünlü had sex with both of them. The sex had then continued once and twice a week, and the women were paid for $2,000 for their services.
Police surveillance records also verified the women’s testimony as Ünlü was observed entering the house where the women were staying on various occasions in September and October 2011.
The women were prohibited from venturing out on their own and were constantly accompanied by Demirel whenever they needed to leave. Additionally, they were compelled to wear the chador at all times. When they voiced their concerns or complaints, Demirel would issue threats, warning them of potential consequences. She asserted that the cleric possessed connections to influential officials who could make their lives exceedingly challenging.
Four Uzbek women –Nargıza Rizaeva (36), Gülruh Şamanova (22), Zukrho Askarova (33) and Rano Jalilova — all affirmed in their police statements that the cleric had promised them housing, a monthly salary and assistance with obtaining residence permits in exchange for engaging in sexual intercourse. In his deposition suspect Kahramonjon Kholmamatov (46), a pimp, informed the police that both the cleric and Sezer had enlisted his help to traffic women from Uzbekistan for the purpose of marriage. He stated that he had brought Rizaeva and Askarova to Turkey and that there were other women who had been introduced to the cleric in a similar manner.
The compelling evidence against Ünlü resulted in his arrest and subsequent indictment, prompting the court to order his pretrial detention. Despite the mounting evidence against him, the cleric vehemently denied any wrongdoing, asserting that he was the victim of a conspiracy orchestrated by Jews, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and non-Muslims, all aimed at tarnishing his reputation. In an attempt to garner support, his wife and associates incited protests, rallying the cleric’s followers to take to the streets for demonstrations.
The mobilization of Ünlü’s followers raised concerns within the police, particularly regarding the potential for a backlash against minority groups and non-Muslims in the city. Police intelligence officer Ubeydullah Çelik, during his testimony on January 4, 2018, at Istanbul’s 13th High Criminal Court, elaborated on these concerns. He explained that the police had become vigilant about the possibility of violent incidents targeting non-Muslims. To address this issue, the police had obtained a warrant from a judge to wiretap the phone of the cleric’s wife, Mine Ünlü, as the cleric was using her phone to coordinate his activities and mobilize his supporters.
This campaign had already stirred tensions among the residents of the Fatih neighborhood, leading to protests involving hundreds of people. However, the police were able to avert potential provocations by taking preemptive measures after gathering intelligence through wiretaps conducted by the police intelligence unit.
As a token of appreciation of his support for the government, President Erdogan managed to whitewash Ünlü’s crimes. As a result, the cleric was acquitted of all charges in March 2016 after the panel of judges who heard the case was replaced by Erdogan loyalists, even though substantial evidence existed against him. The court’s decision resulted in the conviction of only the gang leader, Nejat Ergin, who received a nominal fine as punishment.