prosecutors and prosecutions in antiquities trafficking cases in Turkey: uncertainty in information, uncertainty in rule of law

As BBC News correspondent Mark Lowen has explained, the citizens of Turkey are both ‘addicted to conspiracy theories’ and ‘besieged by “fake news”‘. The problem is worsened by government-aligned ‘fake fact-checkers’, while it is resisted by sincere truth-seekers such as the citizen journalists of Teyit (Confirmation or Verification).

While news about cultural property crime in Turkey is blighted more by churnalism than by propaganda, like everything else, it is burdened by uncertainty of information and uncertainty of rule of law. This is demonstrated by the career of one prosecutor, who has hit the headlines once more.

interference in governance

In 2005-2006, the public prosecutor of Van Province, Ferhat Sarıkaya, accused members of the Turkish Armed Forces of complicity and/or participation in terrorism. Then, the Armed Forces ‘interfere[d] flagrantly’ and asked the Prime Ministry to take the ‘necessary steps’ and the pro-government appointee-dominated Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HCJP) dismissed and barred Sarıkaya from practice.

subversion of governance

By one account, by 2008, Sarıkaya had allegedly become a ‘secret witness [gizli tanık]’ in the Ergenekon trial, in which genuine and fake pieces of evidence (as well as meaningless content that implied guilt by association) were interwoven to make a case of a singular overarching conspiracy by the army-rooted deep state against the government. This process simultaneously undermined certain claims of coupist conspiracies by networks within the state and itself demonstrated the existence of such conspiracies.

Additionally or alternatively, Sarıkaya had become an émigré who was dependent on the mystical Islamist movement behind Fethullah Gülen, which has since been designated as the Gülenist Terrorist Organisation (Fethullahçı Terör Örgütü) by the Erdoğanist (AKP) government, but was then (between 2002 and 2011-2013) in a relationship of ‘support’ and ‘alliance’ with the government, during which the movement ‘infiltrated… the police and judiciary’ and other state structures, including the Armed Forces. In 2011, the HCJP withdrew its expulsion(s) of Sarıkaya (and other prosecutors).

The interaction between the Erdoğanist government and the Gülenist movement had turned from cooperation to competition by 2011, when Gülenist manipulation of judicial processes undermined Erdoğanist consolidation of political power and the government tried to constrain the movement, then descended into conflict in 2013, when the government tried to restrict Gülenist influence in education and Gülenist prosecutor Zekeriya Öz launched an (evidence-based) investigation into governmental corruption.

coup and purges

In 2016, after the coup attempt by a military faction that the Erdoğanist government attributed to the Gülenist movement, Sarıkaya officially became a ‘confessor [itirafçı]’, who testified that the Gülen movement had manipulated him to unjustly target the Armed Forces in his prosecutions (even though genuine evidence of Gendarmerie involvement in the Şemdinli incident was public knowledge). He was suspended (or temporarily dismissed), then arrested for ‘be[ing] a member of an armed terrorist organisation [silahlı terör örgütü üyesi olmak]’ and soon permanently dismissed (again).

antiquities trafficking and unreliable evidence

Yet Sarıkaya had first entered public consciousness in 2004-2005, in a catastrophic pair of cases that revolved around members of Van Yüzüncü Yıl University in south-eastern Turkey. Sarıkaya had accused anti-Islamist rector Yücel Aşkın, deputy secretary-general Enver Arpalı and professor Ayşe Yüksel of ‘corruption [yolsuzluk]’ and ‘trafficking of historic artefacts [tarihi eser kaçakçılığı]’; rector Aşkın was eventually acquitted; and professor Ayşe Yüksel was eventually acquitted; but deputy secretary-general Arpalı committed suicide, because ‘[he] could not live with this stain [Bu lekeyle yaşayamam]’ on his reputation.


  • if Sarıkaya was ‘a pawn of this conspiracy from beginning to end [Baştan sona bu komplonun piyonu]’, as he has “confessed”, albeit in a “confession” that was insecurely extracted by the state (and paraphrased by Doğan Akın in T24);
  • if his prosecutions of Aşkın, Arpalı and Yüksel were ‘unfounded [asılsız]’, as they were judged by the albeit government-controlled Council of Higher Education;
  • if those prosecutions were ‘filed… under directives of the Gülen community [davayı “cemaatin yönlendirmesi”yle açtığını]’, as Sarıkaya has “confessed”; and
  • if ‘Van Rector Yücel Aşkın was a target of the [Gülen] congregation [Van Rektörü Yücel Aşkın… cemaatin hedefiydi]’ and ‘that event was the first operation of the congregation to use the judicial system [o olay cemaatin adli sistemi kullandığı ilk operasyondu]’, as it was perceived by former police chief Hanefi Avcı, who was a former Gülenist sympathiser who was himself prosecuted when he accused the Gülenist movement of infiltration and manipulation of the judiciary, then
  • the prosecution for antiquities trafficking was an instrument in the struggle for power between networks within the state and across society.

Equally, if Sarıkaya has become a pawn in another conspiracy, in the counter-coup through purges of state structures by the government, then the the optics if not the basics of that case have become instruments in the same struggle.

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