Tale of the century may prove house of mirrors

Sat, Jan 3, 2009, 00:00

Turkey is mystified by a man with 100 faces, but is this former journalist a whistleblower who would put Frank Dunlop in the shade or another Walter Mitty? Nicholas Birch writes from Istanbul

THE MAN in Istanbul police headquarters that August day in 2001 was a nondescript sort: a 28-year- old failed journalist with a primary school certificate and a thick Anatolian accent, arrested for petty fraud.

Then he began to talk. Seven years on, Turkey is talking about little else.

"I've never seen anybody like Tuncay Guney," remembers Ahmet Ihtiyaroglu, the specialist organised crime interrogator who took over questioning from his gob-smacked colleagues in small crimes.

"He was so relaxed. It was as if somebody had sent him in to reveal everything. There was something fishy about the amount of information he gave us."

Held for eight days, Guney listed - he says under torture - the names of high-ranking academics, journalists and ultra-left wing politicians he claimed were members of a terrorist organisation. In his house, police found six boxes of documents, some of them top-secret, to back his allegations.

Baffled, they called in investigating magistrates. But Guney was gone. Bailed, he had somehow managed to evade a ban on his leaving the country and fled to the US.

The 2001 investigation got nowhere. Today - their arrest having been triggered by the June 2007 discovery of an Istanbul arms cache - 85 men and women, almost all on Guney's list, are beginning their 11th week in the dock on charges of "attempting to remove the government by force".

"Ergenekon", as Turks call it, has been dubbed the most important political trial in the country's history, and Guney's 2001 testimony is central to it. His name appears in the 2,500-page indictment nearly 500 times.

Guney, meanwhile, is in Toronto, Canada, seeking asylum. A New York-based friend quoted by Newsweek Turkey says he converted to Christianity while there. Now he sports the peyot and Homburg of an ultra-orthodox Jew, and he has begun talking again.

Ensconced in a black leather armchair, he has appeared on almost every TV channel in Turkey. His every word makes headlines. Books about him make a lot of money.

For many secularists, he's a manipulative fraud. Some even doubt his sanity. For the pro-government media, meanwhile, everything he says goes, as long as it doesn't touch their sacred cows.

A respected journalist who has interviewed Guney twice, Ridvan Akar, thinks the truth lies somewhere in between: "Guney wasn't even 30 when he was arrested, but he'd gathered together infinitely more information than a normal journalist could collect in a lifetime," he says.

Behic Kilic, who hired Guney in 1995 when he was editor-in-chief of the daily Aksam, agrees.

"He was a nice, naive-looking kid who could barely write an article, but then he began bringing in scoop after scoop," he remembers. "It was clear he was working for someone."

The question is, who? Many secularists remain convinced he is a tool of the Gulen Movement, a powerful Muslim group they believe has invented Ergenekon to weaken secular opponents.

Guney told police he was working for a shady military police intelligence general now on trial for membership of Ergenekon.

In November, a document was leaked to the press linking Guney to Turkey's MIT, the national intelligence agency. MIT responded ambiguously, saying the document belonged to a "controversial" counter-terror department closed down in 1997.

"Guney was a pool into which everybody was throwing their rubbish," says Avni Ozgurel, a journalist specialising in intelligence issues.

Responding in Turkish to e-mailed questions, Guney - who described himself to Newsweek Turkey as a "manic collector of people" - puts his journalistic successes down to his "honesty and integrity". "I'm a man of the people," he says.

Former acquaintances - Guney does not appear to have had many close friends - have a different interpretation of his astonishing capacity to penetrate any network.

"I think people let him enter their lives because they felt sorry for him," says one well-known journalist who met him in 1994. "He always appeared to be a poor, weak character. He wouldn't even have enough money to drink coffee and would always ask people for favours."

As a master mystifier, Guney has upped his game since he went to Canada. Relaxed and smiling, he told Turkey's top TV anchorman he could prove he was an agent. In December, he sent magistrates in one southeastern Turkish province scurrying to order the opening of wells he claimed contained bodies of scores of Kurdish dissidents murdered by military police in the 1990s.

His performance has divided Turks already deeply riven over the significance of the Ergenekon investigation. Many say the fact he hasn't been brought back to give evidence suggests he is being protected. The more excitable conspiracy theorists (there are many) are convinced he works for the CIA or Israel's Mossad.

Author of a recent book on Guney, Canada-based journalist Faruk Arslan disagrees. "By talking to the media, Guney's main aim is to prove what he says in his asylum claim," he writes. "He attacks people . . . so that they attack him back. That way, he can say he faces threats."

Guney himself writes in an e-mail, characteristically ambiguously: "I have talked, but I haven't said anything. I have been playing with the Turkish media. And a few witless journalists have fallen for it, hook, line and sinker. I took my revenge. And I got an ego trip." By turns self-aggrandising, mournful and opaque, his five-page mail does not read like the work of an all-powerful manipulator.

"I feel regret," he writes. "If only I hadn't become a journalist. It got me into trouble. I got caught up in a power struggle. Only shahs can tell beforehand when the moves will be made. I cannot, and I am afraid."

Belma Akcura, an investigative journalist who has been following Ergenekon closely, says: "Guney is a nobody, out of his depth.

"Reading his police statements, you get the sense he didn't even understand the import of what he was overhearing. He's a bone the big men have thrown out to the media dogs. I almost feel sorry for him."