Istanbul, Turkey – Millions of Turks have tuned in this month to the YouTube channel of convicted Turkish mob boss Sedat Peker with his videos gripping the nation and rattling the government.
In a series of videos, apparently made in exile, Peker made a series of wild and unsubstantiated allegations against several prominent individuals – including leading figures in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) – ranging from murder to rape, drug smuggling, corruption, and the role of organised crime in political machinations and violence.
All the allegations have been vehemently denied by those accused.
The eight videos have had more than 60 million views and Peker’s allegations have reached ever closer to the heart of government.
They have also raised fresh questions about alleged ties between the state and organised crime, which many had believed were largely consigned to some of the darkest periods in Turkey’s history.
Peker, 49, rose to prominence in the 1990s as a gangster notorious for extortion and violence, who, like many leading Turkish mafia figures, has espoused far-right Turkish nationalist views.
He was in jail from 2005 to 2014 for a range of charges, including forming and leading a criminal organisation.
After his release, Peker became a fervent supporter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
He organised rallies for Erdogan’s AK Party at a time when the president was increasingly embracing Turkish nationalism and the worldview of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose support the AK Party now relies upon for its parliamentary majority.
Peker also threatened critics of the government and said he would “shower” in the blood of academics who had signed a petition in 2016 calling for an end to fighting between the security forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in southeast Turkish cities.
Yet, he went on to win major business and philanthropy awards.
Peker said he left Turkey in 2020 to avoid prosecution and, after reportedly spending time in Eastern Europe, now claims to be living in the UAE.
The chief public prosecutor’s office in Ankara issued a new arrest warrant for Peker on Wednesday.
He accused the Turkish police of mistreating his wife and daughters in a raid on the family home last month and began posting the videos on May 2.
Peker has broadcast from what is purportedly a hotel in Dubai. Often wearing an open-necked shirt displaying a medallion, Peker is garrulous, eager to drop references to philosophers and writers, and quick to laughter and menacing turns.
He boasted in one video that his enemies “will be defeated by a tripod and a phone camera”.
While he sometimes consulted notes as he spoke, he has not produced documentary evidence to back up any of his claims thus far.
Among the most serious allegations is that Mehmet Agar, a former interior minister, was, in the 1990s, behind a series of political killings – including of two renowned journalists – as well as more recent drug trafficking and the illegal acquiring of a marina in an upmarket Aegean resort.
Peker also accused the former minister’s son Tolga Agar, a current AK Party parliamentarian, of involvement in the rape and suspicious death of a Kazakh journalist.
Mehmet termed the allegations “all lies” and welcomed an investigation.
“Neither I nor my son has anything to do with anything illegal or immoral,” he said.
Tolga, rejecting the “slander”, said he did not know the journalist in question, that the death had been investigated and the case closed.
Peker also claimed that Erkan Yilidirm, son of former prime minister Binali Yildirim, went to Venezuela to set up a drug-smuggling route.
Binali said the allegations are “absolutely slander, we strongly reject them” and that his son went to Venezuela to provide COVID test kits and masks.
Turkey’s powerful interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, widely touted as a leading AK Party figure to eventually succeed Erdogan, has become Peker’s main target.
Peker claimed to have had had close ties to Soylu, who allegedly provided him with police protection and tipped him off about an investigation into his activities. Peker also claimed that Soylu sought his help to further his early political career and in a power struggle against a rival AK Party clique led by Erdogan’s son-in-law, the former finance minister Berat Albayrak.
Soylu called the allegations “disgusting lies” and said he was being targeted because of his fight against organised crime and “terror”.
Peker has not levelled any accusations against Erdogan, whom he has referred to in respectful terms.
The Turkish president commented on the allegations for the first time on Wednesday, saying Peker’s claims were a plot against Turkey.
“No one should doubt that we will disrupt this devious operation,” Erdogan said in an address to AK Party members. “We pursue members of criminal gangs wherever in the world they flee to.”
Echoes of past scandals
While the government may have hoped the furore around Peker’s claims would quickly die down, his videos have gained greater audiences.
Galip Dalay, a fellow with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs and at Brookings Doha Center, told Al Jazeera that, as well as the nature of the claims, the videos have had such a strong impact because Peker has shown a talent for drama and he has implicated himself in some of the allegations – including a claim that he arranged a 2015 attack on the offices of Hurriyet newspaper at the behest of an unnamed AK Party politician.
“Peker does not claim to be clean in the series of purported crimes he talks about … this increases his credibility in the public eye,” Dalay said.
Ryan Gingeras, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of a book on organised crime in Turkey, told Al Jazeera that the allegations are resonating after years of declining trust in Turkish institutions – including the overwhelmingly pro-government media, which has largely ignored the scandal until recent days.
“I think it kind of exemplifies the crisis of confidence in the country, in the sense that here you have this guy who is spilling ‘truth’ in a medium that people typically trust over other media,” he said.
But Merve Sebnem Oruc, a columnist at Daily Sabah newspaper, said that interest in the story may have surged initially because people were craving some excitement while stuck at home during the pandemic, and also because opposition politicians and opposition media have shared Peker’s allegations uncritically.
“People were encouraged to believe what he said without questioning it,” Oruc told Al Jazeera. “But the background of this shady man shows he cannot be trusted.”
Peker’s claims have also drawn comparisons to the Susurluk scandal of the 1990s in which a police chief and a wanted mafia hitman were killed and a Turkish lawmaker injured in a car accident.
A subsequent parliamentary inquiry in 1998 detailed “deep state” connections between organised crime, heroin smuggling, and political assassinations carried out in collaboration with the Turkish security forces from the 1970s to the 1990s.
The scandal later led to prosecutions – including of Mehmet in 2011, who served one year of a five-year sentence for establishing a criminal organisation.
Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al Jazeera that part of the AK Party’s appeal when it was first elected in 2002 was down to its clean image and the promise of an end to Turkey’s corrupt and murky politics.
He said that many now believe “that kind of corruption has not really disappeared, it is still there, it was just swept under the carpet” and that the scandal might expose AK Party rule as “one that is kind of like Susurluk – all this self-enrichment and ties to the underworld hidden behind a façade of ideology”.
On Wednesday, the AK Party and the MHP voted down an opposition parliamentary motion calling for a probe, and Turkish prosecutors have yet to investigate Peker’s claims.
Gingeras said that the allegations may only resonate with people who already oppose the government.
“I draw similar lessons from previous internet-driven scandals, where people who latched on to it were already cynical about Erdogan, and it just sort of confirmed that bias,” he said.
Peker has, meanwhile, promised to discuss the president in detail in his next video.
Additional reporting by Umut Uras.