ISTANBUL, Turkey — Their bathroom light was on, the curtain to one bedroom slightly open. Their car parked in the usual spot.
Madina Batyrova walked up three floors with two other friends. The door to the two-bedroom apartment in a scenic neighborhood of the megalopolis was locked. The students rang the bell and knocked loudly on the steel door. Nobody answered.
Something was wrong. Batyrova’s heart pounded, the friends called the Turkish police, then the American embassy to let them know that Orouba and Halla Barakat, a mother and daughter active in the Syrian opposition, were missing. Halla Barakat, 23, was an American-born journalist raised in the United Arab Emirates; her mother Orouba, 62, was a Syrian activist and researcher. They had been living in Turkey for four years among three million Syrian refugees. When the Turkish police arrived, they called a locksmith to open the door.
“They were wrapped in carpets. I saw blood on legs. There was a white detergent sprinkled around the bodies on the floor. I stood there and watched. There was no sign of a struggle. Everything looked in its place,” Batyrova said, solemn but composed in an Istanbul café. “I could somehow manage answering questions because I was the only Turkish speaker among my friends.”
The 23-year-old Kyrgyz university student, who’s telling her account of the September 21 murder mystery for the first time, was one of Halla Barakat’s best friends and university classmates. Batyrova said she was the only civilian the police allowed in the apartment as officers handled the bodies and scoured the place for clues. She spent the following week in her home afraid to speak and even attend the victims’ funeral.
Turkish authorities share information on criminal investigations sparingly with the media and the public. Police say Ahmed Barakat, a distant cousin who had fought in Syria as a member of the Free Syrian Army, allegedly killed the Barakat women in a moment of rage after an argument over money. The 22-year-old suspect pleaded guilty in a Turkish court and confessed to the crime after he was arrested on September 30. His DNA was found under Orouba Barakat’s fingernails and CCTV footage showed him entering their apartment before the killing and leaving it afterwards. Police say Ahmed Barakat will undergo a psychological evaluation to see if he was suffering from mental health issues.
No one close to the Barakat women doubts that Ahmed Barakat had a part in killing the women. But was he alone?
Despite the dearth of evidence, Batyrova believes Ahmed Barakat was a pawn in a political assassination and not all the culprits have been caught. The Barakats’ family members are equally suspicious. They say there are too many holes in the crime that authorities claim has been solved.
Turkey no safe zone for dissidents
The case also highlights a growing fear among foreign political dissidents, especially women, that they aren’t safe in Turkey. It’s not hard for neighboring regimes with political adversaries inside Turkey to hire assassins, security analysts say. Turkey has historically served as a safe zone in the crossroads of Asian and European conflicts where dissidents like Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky and Iran’s supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini once sought refuge. But as Turkey navigates its relationship with autocratic regimes, foreign dissidents are increasingly at risk of the wavering loyalties of the Turkish state.
“Turkey had a distance, a balanced position in bloody conflicts in the past. But it’s part of the conflict in Syria. Many Syrian dissidents, mostly high profile men, have been killed in Turkey,” Gokhan Bacik, a Turkish professor of the Middle East at Palacky University in the Czech Republic, told Women in the World.
Chechen, Uzbek and Iranian dissidents have also been gunned down on Istanbul streets in the last several years.
Delbar Tavakoli, 45, escaped to Turkey during the purge after the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. She was a journalist and political dissident who applied for asylum to a third country. In the nine months she spent in Kutahya, Turkey, as a refugee, Tavakoli said she was harassed and interrogated by Turkish intelligence members whom she believes were working with the Iranian regime. When she was accepted to France as an asylee, Turkey refused to let her go. Tavakoli went on hunger strike as French officials stepped in to negotiate her exit from Turkey. On the eleventh day of her hunger strike, Tavakoli was able to fly to France.
“It’s not a safe place for refugees, especially political ones. I haven’t seen my family in nine years, and many Iranian dissidents who can’t return to Iran meet their families in Turkey. I don’t dare go back,” Tavakoli said in a phone conversation from Washington D.C., where she is a university student now.
But Turkish officials insist that Turkey’s safe for refugees and these are isolated cases.
At least five Syrian men have been killed under suspicious circumstances in Turkey since the war in Syria began in 2011, according to local Turkish and international media reports.
Bacik said Turkey wouldn’t admit that it’s not safe for Syrians — it has invested too heavily in Syria. He adds that Turkey’s geography of porous borders with eight neighboring countries, such as Iraq and Syria embroiled in war, also limits the Turkish government’s security capacity. Unless the U.S. or other states provide Turkey with necessary intelligence, Turkey is unable to protect every refugee or dissident, he said.
For Syrians to be safe, for example, they must depend on one of the Syrian political groups to protect them from a rival group, Bacik added.
The Barakat family is an educated political family that has historically fought against the dictatorship of the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for half a century. They have lost many members to various uprisings and the recent war, but few of those who have been killed were women — until now.
The Barakat women were loyal to the FSA, but alleged corruption within the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, the interim opposition government in exile negotiating with the Assad regime, prompted Orouba Barakat to expose various members on social media. Maen Barakat, Orouba’s younger brother and a businessman in Istanbul, said that his sister, in an August 9 WhatsApp message sent to a Syrian group, accused one member in Istanbul of selling “100,000 fake passports” to Syrians who bought one for $400 each. The Turkish government has criminalized passports issued by the Syrian opposition and has imprisoned and deported Syrians who carry one. Orouba Barakat subsequently withdrew from the coalition. She was one of several activist Syrians in Istanbul openly criticizing the coalition of corruption.
Orouba Barakat was also investigating extrajudicial killings in Assad’s prisons, according to friends and family. The last time she visited Syria was a trip she took to Idlib in 2015.
“She was also working on a secret project about everyone who conspired against the revolution, and I don’t know where she was getting her information but she was gathering evidence and documents,” said Maen. Police have her laptop, but her documents and data are missing after the murder. Yet their gold, jewelry and money was left untouched in their apartment, Maen said.
Halla Barakat worked as a TV journalist in English on the Turkish broadcaster TRT World as well as in Arabic on the Syrian opposition leaning Orient TV. She was the sole breadwinner in the family because her mother didn’t have a work permit in Turkey and focused on charity and special projects. Friends and family said Halla Barakat’s father has a separate family in the U.S. and the mother and daughter were estranged from him.
Ertan Karpazli, Halla Barakat’s TRT World colleague and close friend, said the mother and daughter had lived in Dubai for 14 years before The Emirates kicked out Orouba Barakat for being too political and vocal. Halla Barakat traveled to Paris, London, Idlib and many other countries for work and school while she lived in Istanbul.
Halla Barakat told Karpazli that death threats were a constant part of their lives. “They were willing to sacrifice their lives for their cause,” Karpazli said.
Maen said his sister had received death threats on social media and a few times on the telephone. ISIS had threatened the women after they spoke in defense of American activist Kayla Mueller, whom the extremist group killed in 2015 in Syria.
The last threat against the women was several days before their death on Orouba’s cell phone. “Prepare yourself for being killed. Whoever talks about Bashar al Assad will be killed,” Maen said the man on the phone had told his sister.
Maen advised his sister and niece to move to an area closer to him on the European side of Istanbul where there is a strong Syrian presence. They would be safer there. The women lived alone on the Asian side near Halla Barakat’s university in a Turkish area where she graduated in June 2017. The women ignored the threats but were in search of a home on the European side.
“Orouba was courageous and she would always say they [the men threatening them] were cowards. They have reached a point where they are threatened by a woman,” Maen said.
Maen said there was no recorded evidence of the phone threats. He spoke passionately in Arabic, pausing whenever his emotions took over his words. The 56-year-old said he doesn’t know if the Turkish police are telling the family everything, and he was disappointed the U.S. authorities hadn’t contacted the family to investigate American Halla Barakat’s murder. The State Department released a statement a day after the twin homicides, saying the U.S. offered its condolences and would follow the Turkish investigation. The State Department didn’t respond to further inquiry.
When Americans are killed abroad, American authorities may open an investigation in collaboration with the State Department, but it’s on a case by case judgment, said Kadia Koroma, a spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington D.C.
“Please be advised that our Legal Attaché office in Ankara, Turkey, offered FBI analysis and assistance to the Turkish National Police … who are investigating this homicide. The TNP respectfully declined the FBI’s assistance, as TNP is very capable of conducting a thorough and complete investigation,” Koroma wrote in an email to Women in the World. “Due to jurisdictional legalities, the (Turkish police) will continue to work this matter and provide updates to our Legal Attaché office in Ankara.”
Turkish officials confirmed that they’re not working with American authorities.
Holes in the suspect’s confession
What bothers Maen is the contradictory confessions that Ahmed Barakat, the third cousin and suspect, has been giving Turkish police. In one confession, the former fighter told police he was in love with Halla Barakat and when she didn’t return his affection, he killed her. But the version that police find more plausible is that Orouba Barakat had owed him 2,000 Turkish Liras ($517) and when he went to their apartment to request his money, she didn’t give it to him. Ahmed Barakat told police she pulled out a knife on him and he grabbed the same knife and slit her throat in a tussle. Halla was taking a shower and when she came out and saw her mother soaked in blood, she began screaming, and so he also killed her. Some Turkish media reports say Ahmed Barakat told police he left the knife in the apartment, but ABC News reported that the police are still searching for the murder weapon and Orouba Barakat’s cellphone.
Maen finds the testimonies false because he said his sister didn’t owe the suspect any money. He knows Ahmed Barakat well, the cousin stayed with him for about a month. The Barakat family helped Ahmed Barakat flee Syria after the reconciliation deal with Assad’s regime to allow opposition fighters to seek refuge in Idlib, the Barakats’ home city. Ahmed Barakat had a criminal past but Orouba Barakat’s family didn’t know that at the time. He had allegedly killed his own brother after the brother had beaten their mother in a family brawl. Ahmed Barakat’s Facebook profile shows a bittersweet compilation of guns and roses – literally. His posts include photos of him in military fatigues with a machine gun, then images of flowers, one post is a pencil sketch of a little boy and girl holding hands, wearing shorts.
Orouba Barakat gave Ahmed a job in her charity organization in Istanbul but he was siphoning small amounts, $20 to $50, from the accounts. Once he began working with the victims, he spent time at their apartment. They were trusting women, inviting Halla’s friends for dinner often. The women gave him a key to their home but Orouba Barakat told her brother that she wasn’t happy with his work. Ahmed Barakat eventually quit his job with the charity to work in a restaurant.
What Maen found suspicious was Ahmed Barakat’s keen interest to visit the women often. Maybe he was hatching a plan all along with the help of an accomplice, Maen said. “Ahmed would do anything for money.”
Maen’s theory is that the Assad regime is responsible for his family members’ death, but it’s possible that opposition members were bought off and assisted in the murder. All that he’s sure about is that Ahmed Barakat wasn’t the sole mastermind behind the homicides.
Karpazli, a British-Cypriot journalist, began a campaign to give international attention to the murders on social media and follow the findings of the case. He stayed up nights tweeting and searching the women’s names online, poring over press reports, police findings and family interviews. Karpazli said if the FBI or American authorities launch a separate investigation into the murder, more answers may surface that could solve the mystery.
“I’m trying not to jump to conclusions. I’m not ruling out the Assad regime but … they were not big players among the opposition,” Karpazli said. “It could be one crazy guy who killed two women. Or Ahmed was a scapegoat for others.”
Sara El-Khalili and Ozge Sebzeci contributed to this report from Athens and Istanbul, respectively.