Turkey granted protection and citizenship to Ahmad Nazari Shirehjini, an Iranian national who is alleged to be part of an organized crime syndicate that is involved in various schemes, from fraud to money laundering.
Shirehjini works with Mehmet Ağar, a former interior minister who is effectively in charge of the police department, the main law enforcement agency in Turkey. Ağar works closely with various mafia groups and acts with impunity thanks to the political cover he enjoys from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
The official records provide a glimpse into how Shirehjini and his Turkish patrons operate their business scheme in Turkey. According trade registry data, Shirehjini set up real estate firm Nazari Gayrimenkul Yatırımları Limited Şirketi in Istanbul on April 10, 2019 with capital of half a million Turkish lira. His nationality was listed in the records as Iranian.
On February 2, 2020 he submitted notarized records stating that he had acquired Turkish citizenship and an ID card and wanted the official records to reflect his Turkish rather than his Iranian identity. He assumed the name Ahmet Nazari, with a Turkified version of his first name and the dropping of the family name of Shirehjini.
In August 2020 he transferred his shares to a man named Seyedhati Rafaty, also an Iranian who acquired Turkish nationality. A year later he took back all his shares from Rafaty. In September 2020 the company amended the business portfolio in its declaration, adding the authority to establish a call center on behalf of the firm.
On April 26, 2022 Shirehjini turned the company over to Akram Leila Vural, a German citizen. The records show Shirehjini moved his firm twice to different addresses in Istanbul. The frequent location changes and transfer of shares to caretakers in a very short period of time suggest the company functions as a front for Shirehjini's illegal activities. The call center is believed to be a tool to run a fraud scheme that extends beyond Turkish borders.
More information came to light about Shirehjini's activities when Sedat Peker, a convicted mafia boss who used to be an ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and did favors to support his government, said Shirehjini was working closely with Ağar, who pulled strings in the Interior Ministry to fast-track the naturalization process for Shirehjini.
Ağar also helped Shirehjini secure a license to carry a firearm, which is very difficult to do in Turkey, and even obtained special privileges for his car so that he can go through police checkpoints with ease and use emergency lanes if needed in order to avoid any detection while traveling.
The two had enhanced their cooperation to involve family members as well. Shirehjini and Ağar's son Zülfü Tolga Ağar, a lawmaker from President Erdoğan's ruling party and a member of the parliamentary Defense Committee, are listed as business partners in trade records obtained by Nordic Monitor.
The two had shares in a company called Esteticium Sağlık Hizmetleri Şirketi, which advertises itself as specialized in hair transplants. Turkey has become a popular destination for foreigners who want to have hair transplant surgery at a competitive price. The company is reportedly a perfect venue for money laundering operations for Shirehjini and his associates.
A closer look into trade registry declarations revealed other associates of Shirehjini. For one, Murat Boyracı, an alleged drug trafficker who goes by the name of Rat Murat, is also a partner in Esteticium. He has ownership in several other companies as well, such Bosphorus Finans ve Gayrimenkul İç ve Dış Ticaret Limited Şirketi, a financial investment and real estate firm, and Angelo Mermer Madencilik Sanayi ve Ticaret Anonim Şirketi, a mining company.
Boyracı and Mehmet Ağar are believed to be behind the murder of Orhan Adıbelli, a drug trafficker, on August 4, 2020 in Turkey's Kayseri province. Adıbelli had a network of business operations in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, for drug distribution, in particular cocaine. Adıbelli fled to Turkey in 2013 to escape a police operation in Belgium and was welcomed by the Erdoğan government, which hailed him as a major investor.
He quickly made a name for himself with the huge amount of money he managed to bring to Turkey from his drug operations in Europe and owned a cement factory, Kayseri Çimento A.Ş. Adıbelli was killed after Boyracı and Ağar refused to share the profits from the drug business. The investigation into his murder was quickly hushed up, with the real masterminds behind the murder protected.
Shirehjini continues to enjoy his untouchable status through the partnership he struck with Boyracı and Ağar, who provide him with protection and political cover in exchange for cash.
It is also interesting to note that like Adıbelli, Shirehjini has a European connection as well.
Shirehjini spent some time in Germany. According to official records, he set up a limited liability company named NBG Nazari Business Group UG in Hagen in March 2009 with a declared interest in real estate, finances, insurance, telecommunications and energy. It did not last long, however, and the company was liquidated a year later and closed in April 2012.
In Turkey Shirehjini has another firm named N World Finansal Danışmanlık Anonim Şirketi, a financial consultant firm. He set up this company in May 2020 with capital of 1 million Turkish lira. In October, Rafaty became a minor shareholder but sold his small share back to Shirehjini a year later. As in the case of Nazari Gayrimenkul, this firm also twice changed locations.
The Turkish firm's website is no longer accessible, but the Wayback Internet archive machine shows that it was set up in both Turkish and German, advertising itself as a call center in finance. Its office was located at Maslak Polaris Plaza in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul. Shirehjini is allegedly running an international fraud scheme worth $250 million through the call center. Pictures of high caliber assault rifles appeared on social media, confirming that this is not a regular business that manages a call center.
After a mass purge of veteran police chiefs and prosecutors who had cracked down on drug traffickers and organized crime syndicates, the Erdoğan government paved the way for notorious crime figures to establish themselves in Turkey and start operating with impunity under political protection.
The purge came right after Erdoğan and his family members were incriminated in graft probes that were made public in December 2013 and which revealed that Iranian nationals had used Turkish state banks to launder money by bribing Turkish government officials.
Turkey has become an emerging cocaine route with the support of senior government officials. In July 2020 Colombia's narcotics police seized almost five tons of cocaine 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.
Carlos Holmes Trujillo, the late Colombian minister of defense, announced on Twitter that 4.9 tons of cocaine had been seized by narcotics units. Preliminary investigations indicated that the drug was intended to be transported along the Colombian Pacific coast to Central America and later to Turkey. The investigation into the Turkish connection was hampered by the Erdoğan government.
More drug busts that took place in Spain and other places in recent years have revealed that the final destination of the cocaine was in fact Turkey.
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.