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Turkish journalist indicted for insulting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Swedish-based, Turkish journalist, Chechnya, Georgia, Muhammet Emin Tokcan, Abdullah Bozkurt


Turkish journalist indicted for insulting Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

A Swedish-based Turkish journalist was indicted in Turkey over an article he wrote about a notorious and convicted jihadist who hijacked a Russia-bound ferry, fought in Chechnya and Georgia, stormed a five-star hotel in Istanbul and built an organized crime syndicate, with the public prosecutor claiming that the article insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Abdullah Bozkurt, an exiled journalist and editor of the Stockholm-based Nordic Monitor, was slapped with criminal charges for his writing about Muhammet Emin Tokcan, a 51-year-old jihadist who was jailed several times in the past for criminal activities and is still being tried on multiple charges in high criminal courts in Turkey.

Even though Tokcan has a long rap sheet that includes a prison record, conviction and ongoing trials on serious charges, a public prosecutor took his complaint seriously enough to launch an investigation into Bozkurt. An indictment against Bozkurt was filed in court after the personal lawyer of President Erdoğan, Ahmet Özel, who defended al-Qaeda figures in the past, decided to become involved in the case on behalf of his client and endorsed Tokcan’s complaint.

The article, published on the Nordic Monitor website on March 11, 2019, featured the profile of Aktaş as a battle-hardened Turkish militant who committed multiple crimes over a period of years and detailed how he was freed from the grasp of the criminal justice system with the help of the Erdoğan government, which had an amnesty bill passed in parliament.

Tokcan himself admitted to having had a close connection to Erdoğan since the president’s younger days. According to statements made by Tokcan in an interview on Turkish TV in January 2016, he has ways to communicate with Erdoğan and sends messages to him whenever he wants. His claim turned out to be true when Erdoğan’s lawyer got involved in the criminal investigation after Tokcan filed a complaint against Bozkurt on October 23, 2019.

In his complaint Tokcan alleged that Bozkurt libeled him and President Erdoğan in the article and disseminated lies with a view to securing a trial of Erdoğan in an international court as a gang leader. He claimed the article aimed to foment chaos in Turkey and violated a defamation regulation that protects the reputation of the president.

He wanted Bozkurt to be punished for what he called activities that targeted the unity and integrity of the Turkish state, claimed the journalist had insulted Erdoğan and asked Turkish authorities to request an Interpol Red Notice for the arrest of Bozkurt and bring him back to Turkey for trial. Tokcan admitted that he was trained by the military and emphasized the fact that he knew Erdoğan from his youth and had always believed in and supported him.

Tokcan’s complaint was initially processed by public prosecutor Tuncay Karcıoğlu, who invited Tokcan for a formal deposition in an Istanbul courthouse on December 3, 2019. Karcıoğlu is known as a loyalist who gained notoriety in cracking down on critical and independent journalists with blatant abuse of his prosecutorial powers. In the prosecutor’s office Tokcan repeated similar complaints against Bozkurt while admitting to his role in the hijacking of a ferry in 1996, serving time for it and getting arrested again in 2010 for carrying an unlicensed and concealed firearm.

He omitted the fact that he has since committed more crimes and is currently standing trial in two high criminal courts on serious charges. Tokcan’s rap sheet, obtained by Nordic Monitor, shows that he stood or has been standing trial in eight separate cases since he was released in 2010 after serving time for hijacking the ferry. The courts issued four arrest warrants for him between 2014 and 2020. The charges ranged from organized crime and racketeering to possession of firearms, threats and blackmail. In 2020 alone he was tried in two high criminal courts in Sakarya and Düzce provinces, one for threatening to kill someone with a gun and other for extortion and forgery of official documents.

It was obvious that the prosecutor was not interested in Tokcan’s background or the troubles he had faced in the criminal justice system. He was focused more on going after Bozkurt, a journalist with over 20 years’ experience, as this would likely earn him political capital with President Erdoğan.

The case was turned over to investigating prosecutor Selman Bacaksız, who asked the Justice Ministry for permission to proceed with a criminal investigation into the journalist on September 23, 2019. The ministry green-lighted the prosecution of Bozkurt under Article 299 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which criminalizes defamation of the president. The approval, signed by Judge Ali Özturkmen and approved by Deputy Justice Minister Zekeriya Birkan on October 25, 2021, was sent to the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Article 299 stipulates that authorization from the Ministry of Justice must be secured before an investigation can be initiated and calls for to four years’ imprisonment for those who criticize officials like the president publicly. This sentence can be increased by a sixth if it has national exposure and by a third if committed by the press or media. The article is frequently used as the basis for cases in which there are charges of insulting President Erdoğan. In total 9,554 people have so far been handed down sentences for insulting the president.

On September 20, 2021 Judge Muhammet Ateş of the Istanbul 10th Penal Court issued an arrest warrant for Bozkurt, who was already facing outstanding warrants on similar charges for articles he wrote about President Erdoğan and Turkey. The judge’s decision was rendered on the same day prosecutor Bacaksız filed a motion asking for a fresh arrest warrant for the journalist.

Bacaksiz did not waste much time in filing the indictment against Bozkurt. The indictment he submitted to the Istanbul court on November 3, 2021 listed President Erdoğan as a victim who was represented by his personal  counsel Özel and included charges against Bozkurt under Article 299. Citing the complaint from Tokcan as adequate evidence, he asked the court to convict the journalist on charges of insulting the president in his article and send him to prison. He also asked the court to deprive Bozkurt of the ability to exercise certain rights such as holding public office, serving as a trustee, voting in elections, working as a professional position that requires a license from a public agency and leading any association, foundation or labor union.

In the meantime, the prosecutor deliberately ignored the profile of the man whose complaint morphed into a criminal indictment against the journalist. In the article Bozkurt wrote about Tokcan and his connection to the government, in particular to President Erdoğan, and revealed how he was still operating in Turkey.

Tokcan 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 January 16, 1996. 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.

In a book he later wrote, Tokcan said he would have blown the ferry to bits if there were only Russians onboard. The passenger manifest showed that roughly half the passengers were from Turkey.

Tokcan was trained as a commando in 1991 by the Turkish military, 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. 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 to the authorities. He was sentenced to 12 years, 10 months in prison for the raid in a trial heard by the Istanbul 1st High Criminal Court.

In 2010 he and his gang were intercepted in 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 under a court authorization. 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 murdering Jewish businesspeople.

In February 2013 Tokcan and the other suspects were indicted on multiple charges including 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 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 November 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

In the meantime, prosecutor Sarıkaya, head of the organized crime unit Nazmi Ardic, deputy head of the counterterrorism unit Hayati Başdağ and deputy Istanbul police chief Ali Fuat Yılmazer, who were all involved in the investigation and prosecution of Tokcan, were later jailed on trumped-up charges by the government.

Unlike Erdoğan, former presidents rarely used allegations of slander or libel in criminal complaints against critics and opponents. The Turkish president has brought legal action on insult charges against 38,581 people during his time in office as president, compared to a total of 1,716 insult cases launched by five presidents before him. The huge spike in defamation cases during Erdoğan’s tenure drew the attention of European inter-governmental organizations as well.

Turkey is ranked 153rd among 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on April 17, 2021. According to the Stockholm Center for Freedom’s “Jailed and Wanted Journalists in Turkey” database, as of November 17, 2021, 161 journalists were behind bars in Turkey and 167 are wanted and either in exile or at large. At least 811 journalists have been arrested since President Erdoğan came to power in 2002 according to a report by an opposition lawmaker who released figures on January 10, 2021.

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Contents published under this byline are those created by the news team of WeeklyBlitz

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