With a smirk on his face and a gold medallion gleaming on his chest, fugitive gangster Sedat Peker has transfixed Turkey with explosive accusations hurled at the political elite in a series of YouTube videos.
Peker, who spent a decade in prison in Turkey over his involvement in organised crime and who is now wanted for heading a criminal group, broadcasts from a rented room he says is located in Dubai. In seven videos that have been viewed a total of 55m times, he drops bombshell charges that certain government officials or their family members are involved in drug running, rape and murder.
Peker has not implicated president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who he affably calls Tayyip Abi, or “brother”, but his allegations of corruption and backstabbing within the leader’s inner circle have besmirched the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), which swept to power two decades ago with a pledge to break the hold of organised crime on politics.
The mobster began his video onslaught earlier this month following a raid at his Istanbul home in April in which he said police harassed his wife and daughter.
This week, Erdogan broke his silence to cast Peker’s claims as part of a long-running plot by shadowy foreign forces to undermine his rule. “We made Turkey, where these so-called babas [godfathers] known by pompous nicknames once swaggered, a place where the law is the only valid method,” he said in a televised speech.
Peker appears to have caught the AKP on the back foot at a time when its approval rating is at a record low over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout. Elections are due in 2023.
“The airing of the administration’s dirty laundry may lead to the public losing faith that there’s much ideology left in the Erdogan camp,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey programme at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy.
“The Peker tapes expose that it’s about self-enrichment, nepotism and ties to the mafia. Erdogan runs Turkey but he doesn’t lead it, and the aura of stability is gone. Turkey looks like a house of cards.”
Part performance art, part confessional, the videos show Peker seesawing between banter and bellowing. He offers little evidence for his uncorroborated claims — among them that an ex-prime minister’s son scoped out a new cocaine trade route from Latin America to Turkey; an AKP lawmaker raped a university student who was later found dead; and that Peker kept a former MP on a $10,000 monthly retainer.
“I will teach the tyrants that there is no weapon more dangerous than a man who faces death,” Peker tweeted in a teaser for one video, in which he said: “You will be defeated by a tripod and a phone camera.”
Much of his ire is directed at Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu. Peker claims he helped Soylu against a rival group within the AKP led by Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, who resigned as finance minister last year.
He alleges Soylu provided him with security and tipped off a friend so he could evade arrest, but reneged on a deal allowing him to return to Turkey after more than a year on the run.
Soylu has appeared on talk shows to deny all the allegations against him and denied, or said he had no knowledge of, those directed at others. He has filed a complaint against Peker for slander. Erdogan has defended Soylu, saying the attack targeted the whole nation.
Peker’s claims offer a rare peek behind the political curtain in a country where the media is tightly controlled by the government.
“People are rushing to these videos because the government has created an environment where criticism is prohibited [and] this guy makes a fool out of the interior minister, whom everyone else fears,” said Umit Kivanc, a documentary filmmaker and journalist.
The AKP’s partnership with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) over the past half-decade has emboldened crime figures linked to the ultranationalists. The MHP’s leader was photographed with another mafia leader last year after successfully petitioning for his release from prison.
Peker came of age in a far-right youth group affiliated with the MHP and his nationalist credentials resonate with patriotic Turks. “He can flaunt this stuff and not necessarily face blowback because he is a darling of the ultra-right. If they really went after him, it could alienate the rank and file within the MHP,” said Ryan Gingeras, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California and author of a book on organised crime in Turkey.
“People came to see politics as intertwined with organised crime in Turkey because gangsters like Sedat Peker have not shied away from the spotlight,” he added. “He’s essentially a celebrity with a political agenda who happens to have a criminal record.”
Peker cut his teeth as an extortionist and by fixing football matches, according to Gingeras. His rap sheet dates back to the 1990s, when newspapers reported he decorated his cell walls with oil paintings and had washing machines and Roquefort cheese delivered to prison. He was tried for and acquitted of murder, but was convicted in 2007 for establishing a crime syndicate and released seven years later.
A year after that, he was on the campaign trail for the AKP, telling a rally he “would bathe in the blood” of intellectuals who had signed a petition urging an end to fighting with Kurdish militants. Months later he was photographed with the president at a wedding and he has picked up awards as businessman and philanthropist of the year.
Peker has now apologised to the intellectuals and complained that politicians exploit nationalism to “turn us on each other”. Speaking in the videos he has also implicated himself in a series of offences, such as arranging a botched hit on a Turkish Cypriot journalist who was then murdered by others, “breaking the bones” of a former AKP parliamentarian for insulting Erdogan’s wife and organising thugs to attack a newspaper office at the request of an AKP lawmaker.
While the accusations titillate Erdogan’s critics, they have dredged up trauma for the victims. After Peker blamed a former interior minister for the unsolved murder of journalist Ugur Mumcu in 1993, his widow Guldal tweeted: “Pull the bricks down, may the wall collapse and bury whoever is caught beneath it.”