Turkish authorities recently approved the reopening of an outlawed, Iranian-funded association with ties to designated Turkish terrorist group Hizbullah nearly a decade after a court ruled to ban the organization.
The move is yet more evidence of how the Islamist government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been developing closer ties with Iran, which has been secretly funding Hizbullah and affiliated entities, providing intelligence and arms training to its militants.
The ceremony for the reopening of Mustazaf-Der (meaning "Those Oppressed," Mustazaflar ile Yardımlaşma ve Dayanışma Derneği in Turkish) was held on September 11 in Diyarbakır's central Bağlar district where Hizbullah's political front, the Free Cause Party (HÜDA-PAR), is headquartered.
The banning of Mustazaf-Der took place in 2012 after several cases launched by public prosecutors in Konya, Adana and Ankara between in 2008 and 2009 revealed that the organization was closely linked to Hizbullah. The investigations led to indictments and trials resulting in the conviction of dozens of Hizbullah militants with connections to Mustazaf-Der.
Based on the convictions and evidence revealed during these trials, the public prosecutor in Diyarbakır drafted an indictment for Mustazaf-Der, seeking the closure of the association on terrorism charges. In 2012, after deliberations, the Diyarbakır No. 2 Court of First Instance ruled that it be shut down.
Confidential documents obtained by Nordic Monitor show that Turkish police and military intelligence units had in the past mapped out the money trail leading to Mustazaf-Der and other Hizbullah-linked entities and individuals from Iran. The documents, incorporated into a terrorism investigation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, identified the transfer of half a million dollars from Iran to Hizbullah in February 2012 alone.
A report filed by the counterterrorism bureau of the Diyarbakır police department on May 9, 2012 stated that Hizbullah received $100,000 every month from Iran in addition to lump-sum payments for special operations. It noted that Mehmet Hüseyin Yılmaz, the head of Mustazaf-Der; Mehmet Göktaşa, the owner of Hizbullah's publication Doğru Haber; and Sait Gabari and Fikret Gültekin, Hizbullah propagandists, all received half a million dollars from Iran in February 2012. It also added that Iran sent $10,000 to the family of Ubeydullah Durna, a Mustazaf member who was killed by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the town of Yuksekova near Turkey's border with Iran on May 5, 2011.
The report further revealed that Iran set up a special unit in Hizbullah for espionage and surveillance in Turkey to monitor military activities, especially around NATO installations. Members of this group were selected from people who work in government jobs and the media for easy access to sensitive sites and installations. It underlined that the unit ran surveillance of a NATO radar base in Malatya province, photographed and video-recorded the base and its surroundings and passed the results to its Iranian handlers.
The Quds Force probe was hushed up by the Erdoğan government in 2014, and the investigating prosecutor was sacked before he had a chance to secure detention warrants for the suspects or file an indictment. The report on Hizbullah and other evidence in the case file were all buried by Erdoğan's people, who were in bed with Hizbullah.
The reopening of Mustazaf-Der is part of a secret deal made by Hizbullah with the government in exchange for its political endorsement of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Erdoğan, in next year's elections. It follows an earlier pattern seen just before the March 2019 local elections, when the Erdoğan government, which had quietly released convicted members of Turkish Hizbullah, including notorious killers who were serving life sentences for the murder of 91 people in the 1990s and early 2000s in Turkey.
Hizbullah is a deadly group backed by Iran that seeks to establish an Iranian-style mullah regime in Turkey. It 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 outlawed PKK.
They were brutal in their murders, kidnapping moderate Muslims and executing them after torturing them in rooms built under safe houses.
It, however, faced a huge crackdown in early 2001 after the death 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 during the Erdoğan government's first two terms in office. 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 rescue 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 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.
Adding insult to injury, police chiefs, prosecutors and judges who were involved in investigating, prosecuting and trying Hizbullah members in the past were all removed by the Erdoğan government, and some were even imprisoned on bogus charges.
For example, Dündar Örsdemir, the presiding judge of the Ankara 11th High Criminal Court, which heard the Hizbullah trial in 2009, was arrested by the Erdoğan government, while two judges on the same panel, Hakan Oruç and Kadriye Çatal, were slapped with criminal cases on Gülen-linked charges. Similarly, three judges — Bayram Demirci, Ayşe Bolaç Yalçın and İrfan Yıldız — on a panel that heard the Hizbullah case in 2008 at the Adana 6th High Criminal Court were all dismissed and/or jailed by the Erdoğan government in 2016.
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.