Convicted members of Turkish Hizbullah turned out to have been quietly released from prison in stages as part of a secret deal the group struck with the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkish Hizbullah, a notoriously deadly group that is backed by Iran and seeks to establish an Iranian-style mullah regime in Turkey, secured the release of members who were serving prison time including life sentences over a series of murders in the 1990s and early 2000s in Turkey.
Nordic Monitor has learned that the release of the Hizbullah militants was part of a deal made by the group with the government in exchange for political endorsement of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK), led by President Erdoğan.
Among those who were released were 19 members of Hizbullah who were serving aggravated life sentences for the murder of 91 people in a killing spree carried out by the terrorist group. They were convicted in 2007 by the Diyarbakır High Criminal Court and sentenced to life for murders committed as part of the group's attempt to overturn the constitutional order in Turkey and replace it with an Iranian-style Islamic state. The convictions were upheld by the Supreme Cout of Appeals (Yargıtay) in 2010.
Yet before the March 2019 local elections the Erdoğan government helped secure the release of all 19 convicted Hizbullah members in return for support from Hizbullah's political front, the Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par). Some convicted Hizbullah militants had confessed to the murders, revealed the grave locations and even vowed to continue to do the same for the cause of Allah if they were let go during the trial. Their release followed earlier amnesties granted by the Erdoğan government for other Hizbullah members starting in 2013.
Turkish Hizbullah was set up in the '80s but made a name for itself in the '90s when it recruited mostly Kurds in southeastern Turkey and was supported by some elements of the Turkish intelligence, military and police establishments against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). They were brutal in their murders, kidnapping moderate Muslims and executing them after torturing them in rooms built under safe houses. At the time it had been accused of killing around 150 people and leaving hundreds wounded.
It, however, faced a huge crackdown in early 2001 and the killing of its leader, Hüseyin Velioğlu, in a clash with police during a raid on a safe house in Istanbul on January 17, 2000. Hizbullah then adopted a low-key profile and changed tactics to survive the clampdown. It had quietly been reorganizing itself under a number of foundations, associations and other entities in the first two terms of the Erdoğan government. The group established the Hüda-Par political party in December 2012 with the support of the Erdoğan government, which green-lighted the party's entry into politics.
Hizbullah's lobbying efforts to secure its members from prison bore fruit in the aftermath of corruption investigations that rattled the ruling party in December 2013 and incriminated then-prime minister Erdoğan and his inner circle. The group struck a bargain with Erdoğan in exchange for political support before the local elections of March 2013. Some members of Hizbullah were released after the elections.
The alliance became more important for Erdoğan when the AKP lost its majority in the Turkish Parliament in the June 2015 elections for the first time in its 13-year rule. To help Erdoğan's party, Hizbullah did not field independent candidates in the elections and instead supported AKP candidates in Kurdish regions. More jailed Hizbullah militants were released from prison, while some Hizbullah members were given key posts in government agencies, especially to fill the void in the bureaucracy after a massive purge of members of the Gülen movement, a government critic.
The remaining jailed members of Hizbullah were released between January and April 2019. Their release was not even covered in the Turkish media, which is by and large controlled by the Erdoğan government. Those who were let go — Mehmet Veysi Özel, Rıfat Demir, Şeyhmus Kınay, Mehmet Varol, Mehmet Garip Özer, Yusuf Begiç, Mehmet Beşir Acar, Abdulkerim Kaya, Mehmet Tahir Ak, Mahmut Demir, Yunus Avcı and Mehmet Feysel Bozkuş – were serving aggravated life sentences, and their convictions were upheld on appeal.
Mehmet Salih Kölge, another notorious Hizbullah leader who was convicted of ordering the murder of 91 people, was also among those who were released from prison with the help of the government. According to the Supreme Court of Appeals' ruling, Kölge was responsible for 157 separate armed attacks that killed 81 people and wounded 66.
Now Hizbullah, with its political party, associations, foundations, media outlets, charity groups and other networks, has been rapidly expanding in Turkey, especially among Kurds, as well as in a number of European countries.
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.