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By STEPHEN KINZER Published: December 10, 1996 When a speeding Mercedes crashed into a tractor-trailer on a highway 100 miles southwest of Istanbul last month, killing three people and seriously injuring a fourth, it was at first viewed as nothing more than another accident like those that kill thousands of people on Turkey's rugged roads each year. But after the victims of the accident were identified as including a top police official, a member of Parliament and a well-known criminal, a scandal broke out that threatens to shake the foundations of Turkish politics. It involves allegations that successive Turkish governments have over the last decade sponsored death squads, harbored terrorists and turned a blind eye to heroin smuggling. For years, many Turks have suspected that Government agencies were using gangs of killers to help suppress dissidents and Kurdish rebels waging a separatist war in southeastern Turkey. Now, with new information emerging almost daily and the press and the public talking of little else, evidence suggests that officially sanctioned criminality may have reached levels that few had imagined. The scandal has already led to the resignation of the Turkish Interior Minister and the suspension of several high-ranking officers from the Istanbul police force, including the chief. No one believes that they will be the last to lose their jobs or reputations. Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan's Islamic-led Government, which has been in power since June, has not been the target of direct accusations, although unsolved killings have continued here in recent months. Turkey's principal opposition leader, Mesut Yilmaz, who has demanded that the Government pursue the crash investigation wherever it leads, was assaulted on Nov. 24 in the lobby of a Budapest hotel by a rightist Turk who nearly broke his nose. ''Obviously the next message is going to be sent with a bullet,'' Mr. Yilmaz said later, ''but we will not be scared into abandoning this crusade for clean government. If we do not fight today, we won't have anything to fight for tomorrow. If illegal money, coercion and political power come together to seize the state, it will be impossible to continue our struggle through democratic means.'' Since the attack, Mr. Yilmaz and other senior Turkish leaders, including the Prime Minister, have been guarded by unusually tight security details.
The victims of the crash on Nov. 3, all of them in the Mercedes, included Abdullah Catli, a convicted heroin smuggler and terror suspect; Sedat Bucak, head of a Kurdish clan that receives $1.3 million a month in Government money for providing thousands of ''village guards'' who fight separatist Kurds in the southeast, and Husseyin Kocadag, a senior security officer who had commanded anti-guerrilla units and served as deputy police chief in Istanbul. Mr. Catli and Mr. Kocadag were killed in the crash, together with Gonca Us, a former beauty queen who had been the mistress of several prominent gangsters. Mr. Bucak, the member of Parliament, survived. Investigators discovered a trove of weapons, including pistols and silencers, in the wrecked car's trunk. Immediately after the accident, journalists and politicians demanded to know what a top police official was doing in the company of Mr. Catli, who has been hiding from Interpol since his escape in 1990 from a Swiss prison, where he was serving a sentence for heroin smuggling. Questions increased when it turned out that Mr. Catli held a Turkish diplomatic passport, a gun permit and six identity cards, each bearing a different name. Mr. Catli was well known to those who follow far-right activities in Turkey. Police investigators have linked him to a number of crimes here, including a massacre of seven leftist students in Ankara in 1978 and the Istanbul jailbreak in 1979 that freed Mehmet Ali Agca, who was being tried for the killing of a leading journalist and who later shot Pope John Paul II in Rome. Investigators also believe that Mr. Catli and his associates carried out terrorist attacks abroad, some of them aimed at Armenians who were gunning down Turkish diplomats in the United States and elsewhere. The driver of the truck into which the Mercedes crashed, Hasan Gokce, has become something of a cult figure. Many Turks feel that although the crash was accidental, Mr. Gokce deserves the nation's thanks for having been the instrument through which so many sordid secrets have begun to emerge. The routine traffic hearing at which he testified was overflowing, and at one point Mr. Gokce broke down in tears when spectators drowned out the proceedings with chants of ''You are a hero!'' The Interior Minister, Mehmet Agar, sought to dismiss questions about the car crash. He first said the odd combination of passengers in the Mercedes was merely coincidental, and later speculated that Mr. Kocadag might have arrested Mr. Catli and was bringing him into custody. But after it became clear that the two had a long working relationship, charges that Mr. Agar was involved in a cover-up became so strong that he was forced to resign. Several leading newspapers have published excerpts from what they say are police and military intelligence reports asserting that Government security agencies began using death squads a decade ago, and that the squads were given a strengthened mandate around 1991. The reports say
the squads operated against Kurds and others who they believed were supporting the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the P.K.K. ''Terrorists would be caught, or killed if necessary, before they actually staged attacks,'' Ismet Berkan, a columnist, wrote in the newspaper Radikal. ''And the persons who provided the terrorists with material or moral support would be treated the same way as the terrorists.'' Politicians and commentators have asserted that such operations could not have been carried out without the knowledge and consent of the three Prime Ministers who have led Turkey in recent years, all of whom remain major political figures. They are Mr. Yilmaz, whose demands for an investigation may be motivated at least in part by his bitter antagonism to the current Government; Suleyman Demirel, the country's elder statesman and now its President, and Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller. Mrs. Ciller, who was Prime Minister from 1993 until the beginning of this year, has been the object of especially harsh accusations. Eighty members of Parliament asked the federal prosecutor last week to bring charges of criminal misconduct against her. They said the fateful car crash presented Turkey with ''a historic opportunity to expose unsolved murders and the drug and arms smuggling that have been going on in our country for years.'' Mrs. Ciller has denied any wrongdoing, and asserted that charges against her were coming from political rivals and enemies in business and the press who practice ''subversive policies based on a doctrine of hate.'' But she has pointedly refused to disassociate herself from the late Mr. Catli. ''I do not know whether he is guilty or not,'' Mrs. Ciller said, ''but we will always respectfully remember those who fire bullets or suffer wounds in the name of this country, this nation and this state.'' What was seen as Mrs. Ciller's effort to defend the right of governments to hire death squads caused a furor, and Prime Minister Erbakan, who had remained silent for three weeks after the accident, felt compelled to speak. ''You cannot have a gang within the state,'' Mr. Erbakan told Turkish journalists. ''Nobody can be allowed to do anything illegal, with no exceptions. Nothing, including fighting the P.K.K., can be an excuse for crime. If such things happen, those gangs, whatever their makeup, must be disbanded.'' The longtime leader of Turkey's far-right political party, Alparslan Turkes, is among officials who have admitted knowing that Mr. Catli performed clandestine services for Turkey's police and military. ''On the basis of my state experience, I admit that Catli has been used by the state,'' Mr. Turkes said. He said Mr. Catli and the other men traveling in the Mercedes that crashed had been cooperating ''in the framework of a secret service working for the good of the state.''
One of Turkey's most prominent pro-Kurdish politicians, Guven Ozata, said the car crash and its aftermath had convinced him that state-sponsored death squads were behind many of the estimated 3,500 unsolved killings that have been committed in the southeastern part of the country in the last decade. Most of the victims had been suspected of sympathizing with separatist Kurdish causes. ''These gangs have a direct link with mystery killings,'' Mr. Ozata said at a news conference. ''This is no longer a hypothesis or a guess. It is a reality acknowledged by Government officials.'' Several politicians and others who are calling for investigations into the Government's relationship with criminal gangs believe that the gangs used their official ties as cover for involvement in Turkey's lucrative heroin-smuggling trade. They suspect that senior officials were engaged in the trade or tolerated it as a way of repaying gangs that killed at their behest. ''By now it is obvious that the state has from time to time engaged in secret operations to commit illegal acts,'' Can Atakli, a columnist, wrote in the Istanbul daily Sabah. ''Undemocratic-minded people, concocting their own brand of 'patriotism,' decided to use gunmen to eliminate people they saw as a threat.'' ''Most of the public believes that the truth about these gangs will never be fully exposed,'' Mr. Atakli wrote. ''Is it really an insoluble problem? No. But unraveling the tangle would upset so many powerful individuals and organizations that one tends to think maybe it is better kept as it is.''
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