The arrest and release of a Turkish businessman close to the government on drug trafficking charges, only after an alert from German authorities, appears to follow classic stalling tactics often used by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to deflect international criticism.
Time and again the Erdoğan government has "sandbagged" efforts to effectively investigate criminal conduct when the investigation incriminated or implicated senior government officials, members of the ruling Islamist elite or their associates.
At times, it allowed investigations and judicial proceedings to move forward only in a very controlled environment to paint a false picture that the government is cracking down on criminal or terrorist elements when in fact it is doing nothing but whitewashing wrongdoings or helping criminals go free with a slap on the wrist.
This case looks to be one of those the Erdoğan government is keen to contain. Ali Osman Akat, the owner of companies selling cosmetic products under the name Lactone Holding A.Ş. and Lactone Kozmetik A.Ş., was identified as a suspect in a drug trafficking network after German federal customs service Bundeszollverwaltung officers searched the contents of a Turkey-bound shipment. The cargo left Bogota, Colombia, and arrived in Istanbul after going through Customs while in transit in Panama, the US and Germany.
The inspection at Leipzig/Halle Airport on November 20, 2021 of three pieces of cargo revealed 116 kilograms of cocaine mixed in with iron dust particles. German police alerted Turkey and provided a copy of their inspection. At the request of Turkey, German authorities agreed to let the shipment proceed with mutual consent that the bust would be made in Turkey at the final destination where the suspects would receive the cargo.
The recipient of the cargo was listed as Süleyman Yekenkunrul, owner of trading firm Prufier İç ve Dış Ticaret Ltd. Şirketi and an associate of Akat. It was sent from a man named Carlos Aguilar Call from Colombia. The contact phone for the delivery belonged to Tevfik Akan Atak, an employee of Akat and the general coordinator at Lactone for foreign trade.
The cargo was taken from Germany by Turkish Customs officials and brought back to Istanbul on December 7, 2021. The findings of the German authorities were verified in a separate inspection done at a lab in Ankara on December 13, 2021.
Under orders from the Turkish prosecutor, gendarmes replaced the cocaine with sand of the same color — which was odd and against standard operating procedure in such planned busts — delivered the cargo posing as couriers to the listed address in Istanbul's Maslak district and detained six people on December 15, 2021.
In the arraignment on December 17, Akat was quickly released by the investigating judge and Atak and Yekenkunrul were formally arrested. The same judge who ordered Akat's release decided to arrest him on January 6, 2022 after a challenge filed by the prosecutor, which means a political directive was conveyed to the court that Akat was to remain in pretrial detention for a while. Other suspects Ali Karataş, Sarra Chouıekh and Mustafa Güldiken were all released pending trial.
Akat was again released at the first hearing on May 20, 2022.
Among the red flags in the case that make it appear to be a hush-up operation rather than a real crackdown on cocaine traffickers is that the bust was never publicized by the government, which is unusual. In most cases the Interior Ministry and the police invite the press to take photos and videos of the seized drugs and the suspects, and an official statement is issued describing how successful law enforcement was in the operation.
This never happened. The public knew about it only four months later when the Sabah daily, owned by President Erdoğan's family, decided to run a story, on April 13, 2022. The paper had footage from the bust, which means the government leaked it at a time that would best serve its interests. More likely, the Erdoğan government wanted to make the case public to ease the pressure amid serious allegations that Turkey had turned into a cocaine trafficking route amid seizures of drugs in Spain, Colombia and other places that were destined for Turkey.
But it appears the Erdoğan government did not intend to seriously pursue the case after an initial splash in the media, and judges controlled by the Erdoğan government quietly let Akat go at the first hearing, during which he blamed one of his employees and said the employee ordered the shipment containing the cocaine.
Although Akat and five other suspects were indicted on drug trafficking charges with a recommended 135 years in prison in total for the suspects, his quick release from prison at the first hearing in the case further confirmed suspicions that the government is keen to derail the case at the end. The opposition parties in Parliament criticized the government and asked under whose orders the key suspect was released despite serious charges against him.
In his defense, Akat denied having any knowledge of the drugs and blamed Atak, the general coordinator of the company. Phone records and chat messages, however, showed that Akat had frequently given orders to Atak in Customs matters, prompting the prosecutor to believe that such a high value cargo could not have been shipped without prior authorization of the owner.
In August 2017 Akat became president of the Turkish American Business Association (TABA), a business interest group that was established in 1987 to promote business relations between the US and Turkey, to encourage American investment in Turkey and to assist its members in networking. It is also a representative of American Chamber of Commerce in Turkey. He served there for five years.
His membership in TABA was terminated after the news of his arrest over the cocaine bust was made public.
Photos shared by Akat on social media show he is close to senior government officials. He has pictures with President Erdoğan, Parliament Speaker Mustafa Şentop and a number of Cabinet ministers including Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, in charge of cracking down on drug trafficking. He had a contract to supply cleaning products to parliament and made 348,000 Turkish lira from the sale.
In one picture he also appeared next to Egemen Bağış, a disgraced former minister who was in the past charged with taking bribes from an Iranian operative. Bağış is currently serving as Turkish ambassador to Czechia and has allegedly been facilitating drug trafficking in Europe using his diplomatic privileges.
Lactone does not have a long track record in business but quickly expanded to increase its capital to 12 million Turkish lira in 2020 from 200,000 Turkish lira in 2017.
Akat's lawyer claimed the innocence of his client and his hope that he will be exonerated of all charges.
Nordic Monitor previously reported that Turkey has become an emerging route for large-scale cocaine trafficking, an unprecedented development, and it is alleged that a politically connected, powerful new player may have appeared on the scene to move large quantities of the drug through Turkish seaports.
The spotlight turned on Turkey in June 2020 when Colombia's narcotics police seized almost five tons of cocaine. The drug was in two containers that were to travel by sea from the port of Buenaventura to Turkey and had a street value of $265 million in the illegal market.
Sedat Peker, a convicted mob boss and former ally of the Turkish president, also claimed senior government officials were involved in the cocaine trade. Peker named Interior Minister Soylu and his associates as influential people who were involved in facilitating the cocaine trafficking through Turkey. Peker had partnered with Soylu for years in running criminal syndicates.
Abdullah Bozkurt, a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow, is a Swedish-based investigative journalist and analyst who runs the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and is chairman of the Stockholm Center for Freedom.