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Turkey's Pelican group: A state within a state

Hülya Schenk | Daniel Bellut
March 16, 2020

After Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government set its sights on critical news outlet OdaTV, several of its journalists now face harsh prison sentences. Is Turkey's president using a secret group to control judges?

Two hands wrapped in a chain held up above a Turkish flag
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Suna

It was one of those moments that once again showed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's seemingly limitless power. On a return flight from a state visit to Azerbaijan two weeks ago, one of the pro-government reporters accompanying the president criticized that OdaTV had not yet faced charges. He argued the online news outlet was one of the key initiators of the "coup attempt" — a reference to the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the government — and that OdaTV described the state and the police as "murderous."

Erdogan thanked the journalist for his assessment and said he would take care of it. "The ball is now in the court of justice," he said. A week later, the Turkish judiciary initiated investigations into OdaTV employees. Police arrested Editor-in-Chief Baris Pehlivan, news chief Baris Terkoglu and editor Hulya Kilinc. Access to the website was blocked. The arrested journalists reportedly face up to nine years in prison.

Read moreTough times for journalism in Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey

The media outlet was charged with having reported about a Turkish intelligence officer who died in the war in Libya, and having "revealed information and documents related to intelligence activities." This information, however, had previously been released by a member of the opposition Iyi party at a press conference in parliament. The Constitutional Court had ruled in a landmark decision in 2016 that information is not subject to secrecy if it was previously known to the public.

Tents at the Gezi Park protests in 2013
Erdogan viewed the 2013 Gezi Park protests as a challenge to his governmentImage: Osman Kavala

Ongoing suspicions for years

For many observers and social media users, this speedy move was further proof that a secret group close to Erdogan has infiltrated the judiciary. Suspicions have been growing for years that a faction known as the Pelican group is gaining increasing influence in Turkey and effectively operating as a state within the state. The name refers to "The Pelican Brief," a 1992 legal thriller novel by John Grisham that was later turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts.

Read moreReporters in Turkey adopt a new beat: Imprisoned journalists

Alican Uludag, a journalist with Turkey's opposition Cumhuriyet daily, has no doubt that the group exists. His research has shown that the Pelican group pulled the strings during the arrests and censorship surrounding OdaTV, he said. "Journalists working for Pelican have publicly welcomed and supported the arrests, and OdaTV has for years been reporting on the restructuring of the Turkish justice system initiated by Pelican."

Uludag said he assumes a network of Pelican members has infiltrated the judiciary, adding that Erdogan's lawyers personally told him as much.

Reminiscent of Gulen movement

Along with 44 fellow lawyers, Istanbul Bar Association President Mehmet Durakoglu protested against the arrest of OdaTV journalists and signed a joint declaration against political meddling. The lawyer was cautious about the alleged influence of the Pelican group, however, saying he could not confirm its existence. There is obviously some kind of power struggle between different groups going on within the judiciary, only a blind man would not see that, he said, but declined to name names.

The existence of such a group has drawn comparisons to the influence that the Gulen movement had in the past. The religious group, led by Fethullah Gulen, used to be very close to the Turkish government and judiciary, in particular to the president. Today, Gulen and Erdogan are embittered opponents, and Turkey lists the movement as a terrorist organization. "There was an outcry back then," said Durakoglu, adding it is necessary to point out, once again, the same danger.

Gulen sits at his home in a chair
Once an Erdogan ally, Gulen has been accused by the Turkish government of inciting a coupImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Smith

Links to a party, a think tank

The Pelican group is a wing of the ruling AKP Islamic-conservative party, led for the most part by Erdogan's son-in-law, Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, said Alican Uludag, adding that the group is preparing for Erdogan's successor and is particularly influential within the country's judiciary.

Firat Erez, a journalist and former member of the Istanbul-based Bosphorus Global think tank — regarded as the Turkish government's propaganda tool — once belonged to the Pelican group. The group met regularly with the Turkish president, he said. The group's luxurious headquarters, an Ottoman mansion on the Bosporus, and the employees' salaries were financed by a private hospital run by Erdogan's close confidant, personal physician and health minister, Fahrettin Koca, according to Erez.

The Pelican group is Erdogan's troll army, Erez said, offering an insight into its perfidious media strategy: The group tries to slander political opponents on social networks and spread disinformation.

How influential is the Pelican group? Is it Erdogan's army of trolls or Erdogan's shadow justice — or both? Many rumors have been circulating about the group. One thing is clear, however: The speculation is a sign of the deep mistrust large parts of the population have towards the Turkish state and its decisionmakers.