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Organized Crime Boss' Explosive Allegations Shake Turkish Politics

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We turn now to Turkey, where a feud between the government and a convicted organized crime boss has much of the country hunched over their computer screens.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that weekly video messages with explosive allegations of high-level corruption have infuriated President Erdogan, who vows revenge.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: For more than a month, accusation-filled videos from Turkish mob boss Sedat Peker have dropped every week.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SEDAT PEKER: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: They include tales of vicious infighting among groups close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and shadowy ties between mobsters and officials. And although the allegations are uncorroborated, they've become must-see viewing for many people across the country.

Fati, a 41-year-old Istanbul resident who asked that his family name not be used for fear of retaliation by the authorities, says it reminds him of when he was growing up, and mob activities seemed virtually unchecked.

FATI: (Through interpreter) I was born in 1980. I lived in the '90s mafia Turkey. This is an extension of that period. This is the 2000 model of the same thing.

KENYON: One of Peker's bombshell allegations involves the son of a former Turkish prime minister who Peker says was instrumental in setting up a new route for narcotics from Venezuela to Turkey allegedly concealed in packages of imported cheese. Fati says that really got his attention.

FATI: (Through interpreter) The drug issue he mentions - what was the name of that guy with the cheese? I think that's unbelievably fantastic.

KENYON: Ex-Vice President Binali Yildirim denied that allegation. But there are many in Turkey who are quite prepared to believe in a link between government officials and organized crime. Analyst Soli Ozel at Kadir Has University says Peker, who in the past menacingly declared that he would, quote, "bathe in the blood of liberal intellectuals," also managed to get very close to some Turkish politicians, including President Erdogan.

SOLI OZEL: Wedding pictures and videotaped - there's obviously a very strong link between these people. Peker himself has campaigned politically for - on behalf of - if not on behalf of, definitely in favor of President Erdogan.

KENYON: Peker served several years in prison and now reportedly lives in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Erdogan, who had been staying out of the controversy, recently waded in, vowing to defeat Peker and other criminals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Speaking Turkish).

KENYON: "The members of the crime organization, wherever they run, we will be following them," he said, adding, "We won't let these criminals go until we bring them back and hand them to justice."

Ayse Zarakol, a professor at Cambridge University, says now that Peker has brought the issue to the forefront, others are speaking out, including former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who told a Turkish newspaper that today's Turkey is, quote, "a cartel state, a narco state." Zarakol says Peker avoided targeting Erdogan personally in the videos. But now that Erdogan has spoken out, he may be the subject of future attacks.

AYSE ZARAKOL: Now that, you know, Erdogan has come out in support, some say that he may actually, in the next videos, may speak about Erdogan more directly or Erdogan's family. But, you know, Peker is an unpredictable character. It's hard to (laughter) say, I think.

KENYON: Analyst Soli Ozel says the feud could damage Erdogan.

OZEL: Coming on top of mismanagement of the COVID crisis and the very severe economic conditions, particularly for the poor in the country, the public, especially the poorer segments of the public, may be more receptive to these allegations.

KENYON: But that depends on where this heads and what Peker says next. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 29, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier audio version of this story incorrectly stated that Cambridge University is in London. It is in Cambridge, U.K.