Late last month, a Turkish court released the last seven suspects who had been arrested on suspicion of being members of the Turkish branch of ISIS.
This means that all 96 suspects in the case who are now on trial as suspected terrorists were free to go about their business among the public.
These seven allegedly include major figures in the ISIS structure. Halis Bayancuk, the alleged Emir, or commander, of ISIS in Istanbul, for example, was one of the defendants.
The major Turkish daily newspaper, Hurriyet, reported that two Syrian nationals – Muhammed Mustafa Halli and Assad Khelifa Khadr – also testified in court.
They are accused of escorting two women with French passports from Istanbul to the southeastern province of Gaziantep and then across the border to Syria to join ISIS. The defendants denied the allegations.
“Being in the tourism business, we are sometimes asked to escort foreigners, but I have never sent anyone to ISIS. I support neither ISIS nor its ideas,” said Assad Khelifa Khadr.
He admitted he entered Turkey illegally.
Halli said that he has sent no one to Syria to join ISIS, adding that he has two wives – one in Libya and one in Syria.
Bayancuk, who is sometimes called “Abu Hanzala,” his nom de guerre, said he had been accused of being the head of the Turkish branch of al-Qaeda, but that he could not simultaneously be a member of two organizations that are each other’s enemies.
Irfan Gul, one of the defendants, was asked why there were leaflets in his home which urged people not to vote in the national elections.
Gul replied that they did not belong to him; he had only found them in front of his house. “The leaflets had verses from the Koran, and I therefore did not know how to dispose of them,” he said.
Another alleged terrorist, Gokhan Bulut, who also had been released, did not even go to court for his trial. He participated through a video connection with the courtroom.
He said that he had found the bombs and guns for which he was arrested in a car he had rented. “Somebody else had left them there. They did not belong to me,” he added. Bulut had previously been arrested on suspicion of taking part in another conspiracy involving al-Qaeda suspects in Turkey.
At the end of the hearing, the seven defendants, each of whom had been arrested on suspicion of being an ISIS member, were released.
In December, 2015, the German television station, ARD, produced footage documenting ISIS’s slave trade in the Turkish province of Gaziantep (also known as Antep) in Turkey, near the border with Syria.
Some human rights groups in the region filed criminal complaints, in which they called for the prosecutors to investigate these serious allegations in order to bring the perpetrators to account. One of them was the Gaziantep branch of the Association of Progressive Women (IKD).
However, all six persons who allegedly have ties to ISIS and have allegedly enslaved Yazidi women to use them and to sell them for sexual purposes in Antep were acquitted during their first hearing.
The IKD association issued this written statement about that ruling:
“We learned yesterday that all defendants were acquitted at one hearing, in an exceptionally speedy trial conducted on January 15. As our association was considered a witness, we were not informed of the stages of the trial, and we learned the result only by word of mouth.
“We are not astonished that these defendants have been acquitted. This trial is one of hundreds in which the criminals have been protected, even though the evidence against them is both clear and strong. The indictment stated that the office shown in the footage was found, and all the evidence in the news reports, seized.
“Six people were arrested in the process of the investigation, but they were all released by court order. Despite all of the evidence in its possession, the court acquitted the defendants on the grounds that there was no evidence.”
Turkey appears to be playing a dangerous cat and mouse game with the West. Arresting ISIS suspects in massive sweeps yet releasing them after dubiously rigorous trials.
The West, for its part has been content to look the other way for a number of reasons, including the dependence of the West on Turkey, as well as other Middle Eastern regimes, for oil as well as political support.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist formerly based in Ankara. She is presently in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/uzayb