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Mystery deepens over assassination of Russia envoy in Turkey

Turkish police take security measures in front of the building where Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov was murdered in Ankara, Turkey on 19 December 2016 [Abdülhamid Hoşbaş/Anadolu Agency]
Turkish police take security measures in front of the building where Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov was murdered in Ankara, Turkey on 19 December 2016 [Abdülhamid Hoşbaş/Anadolu Agency]

In the aftermath of the assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish police officer, confusion continues to pervade the question of "whodunit" and ordered the assassination of the senior Russian diplomat.

Ambassador Andrei Karlov was gunned down at close range by police officer Mevlut Altintas, reportedly off-duty at the time. Wearing a black suit, Altintas shot Karlov five times in the back on Monday as he was giving a speech about his homeland at an art exhibition in Ankara.

Almost immediately after the slaying, Turkish authorities were quick to lay blame at the door of the Hizmet Movement, led by elusive cleric Fethullah Gulen who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania in the United States for almost two decades.

Citing an anonymous senior Turkish security official on Monday, Reuters reported that the shooter, 22, had been a member of a riot police unit for two-and-a-half years and had been a housemate of several people identified as Gulenists.

Kani Torun, an MP for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told Al Jazeera yesterday that it was unlikely that Altintas was with any groups based in Syria, perhaps indicating Al-Qaeda or Daesh, and so "accordingly, the only likely culprit for this attack is FETO," using another acronym for the Gulen group.

This view was reinforced by the Turkish foreign ministry, with Al Jazeera reporting late last night that Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had informed US Secretary of State John Kerry that both Ankara and Moscow had laid the blame for the assassination on the Gulenists.

Disagreeing with that assessment, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov today said that it was too early to point the finger at any one group. Answering a question about Cavusoglu's remarks, Peskov said: "It is really not worth rushing to any conclusions."

Gulenists say they are 'scapegoats'

In a statement released today, the Gulen organisation has completely rejected any allegations that it is behind the assassination of the Russian envoy.

"We condemn the brutal attack against the Russian ambassador…and express our heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends of the victim," the statement read, calling on the murder to be "independently investigated and punished".

Fethullah Gulen himself condemned the killing and said: "It is the expectation of the Turkish people and the world that the government investigate…this incident, identify those who aided the perpetrator and take the necessary precautions so that such an attack cannot be stage in the future."

Complaining that the Turkish government blames the Gulen movement for any wrongdoing in Turkey, the statement said: "The Hizmet Movement was used as a very convenient scapegoat that helps Turkish officials avoid responsibility for domestic problems."

Ismail Mesut Sezgin, one of the Gulenists London-based leaders, questioned how the assassin's superiors were seemingly unaware of what was happening. "What may have led a young man to commit such a heinous crime in front of the world? How was this not noticed by his superiors?"

Speaking to MEMO on condition of anonymity due to work he conducts in Turkey, a security expert told MEMO that it was unlikely that the Gulen group was behind the attack.

"The shooter was standing on the stage directly behind Ambassador Karlov. He entered the building with his police ID and was armed. Why did none of the ambassador's security detail question why an off-duty police officer was on stage standing behind a high level diplomat?"

The security expert continued: "I think it more likely that this was a lone wolf attack by someone frustrated with Russian actions in Syria perceived as targeting Muslims and supporting a despot."

"It has caused Turkey a lot of embarrassment, and may now cause other diplomats to insist on security details from their own countries, or to rely on private contractors. The Gulen group is therefore a convenient scapegoat."

Former allies, now implacable foes

AKP and the Gulenists previously worked together to weaken the influence of the Turkish ultra-secular deep state, responsible for four coups since 1960. However, a series of incidents frayed relations and shattered the marriage of convenience.

Ankara accuses the Gulenists of orchestrating the 15 July coup attempt that was averted after Turkish citizens rallied to the call of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stand against the putsch and safeguard Turkey's democracy.

The Gulen group was also behind a corruption scandal that engulfed Turkish politics in 2013, relating to senior AKP officials accepting bribes and helping Iran to evade international sanctions over its nuclear programme.

The net result of these incidents has led Erdogan's government to list the Gulenists as a terrorist organisation, as well as to purge state institutions from them.

The judiciary, security services and military were heavily saturated by the Gulen organisation, something Erdogan relied on when moving against the deep state during his alliance with Gulen.

Particularly since the failed coup attempt, Ankara has initiated a purge that has seen hundreds of thousands lose their jobs, face courts and sometimes find themselves even imprisoned on charges of treason and plotting against the state.

Turkey insists these measures are reasonable to protect its democracy, and has frequently challenged other countries on what they would do if their democracies were about to be toppled by subversive groups.

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