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Syrian man sentenced in Turkey for burning two alive under Islamic State

A Turkish court has sentenced a Syrian man for ordering the burning executions of two Turkish nationals in 2016, but many aspects of the grisly murder remain in the dark.
This picture taken on March 24, 2019, shows a discarded Islamic State flag.

The first conviction over the 2016 burning execution of two Turkish nationals by the Islamic State (IS) in Syria has brought some solace to the victims’ families, but many aspects of the gruesome killing remain in the dark as critics say authorities are reluctant to dig deep into IS-related probes.

On Oct. 18, a court in Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, found Jamal Abdul Rahman Alwi, a Syrian national, guilty of ordering the execution. The sexagenarian was handed three life sentences without the possibility of parole, including two for the burning executions. Alwi — the sole defendant in the case — rejected the charges. According to the prosecution, he was an IS member from 2013 to 2016 and served as a qadi, or a judge in a Sharia court. Alwi’s lawyers say they will appeal the sentence, citing insufficient evidence for the conviction. 

Ankara has yet to break its silence on the execution since a video posted on social media in December 2016 showed two young Turkish-speaking men clad in military camouflage being set afire. One of the victims — Sefter Tas, a soldier abducted from a border area the year before — was quietly confirmed dead in 2017 when officials informed his family the video was authentic and their son was martyred, according to Tas’ father. The authorities have kept mum on the other victim, Fethi Sahin, who remains alive in official records amid claims that he had joined IS or worked for Turkish intelligence.

Alwi was arrested in September 2021 following an explosive media report that he was living as a free man and running a bird shop in Gaziantep despite earlier detention and indictment on charges of IS membership.

Speaking to Al-Monitor after the court’s ruling, Tas’ father, Aydin Tas, said that “justice has been served, but belatedly,” noting that Alwi was able to “walk about freely” for a long while in Turkey.

Sahin’s father, Mehmet Sahin, said the verdict brought the family “some relief” but stressed he was still awaiting an official word about the fate of his son.

An array of other questions remains unanswered about the execution. The media have previously reported that Turkish intelligence identified three Turkish IS members as the executioners, but there is no publicly known probe or court case against other suspects involved in the killing. 

Court documents in Alwi’s trial include a 2017 police intelligence report that names him as the qadi who ordered the execution, though it mentions no other suspects. Why Alwi was released nine months after his initial arrest in June 2020 remains unclear. His connections and accomplices have yet to come to light as well. 

Another judicial move last week rekindled criticism that authorities stop short of fully uncovering the networks behind IS crimes. The chief prosecutor’s office of the Appeals Court recommended that the tribunal uphold the conviction of a single defendant in a lawsuit over an IS suicide bombing in July 2015 and reject requests for the expansion of the case. The suicide bomber killed 34 people in the border town of Suruc, blowing himself up in the midst of young activists planning to take aid to Kobani, the mainly Kurdish Syrian city across the border that was just rescued from an IS siege.

The Suruc attack followed two bomb explosions at the election rally of a pro-Kurdish party in Diyarbakir in June 2015 that claimed five lives. In October the same year, 103 people were killed in twin suicide bombings at a peace rally in Ankara. Close links have emerged between the three attacks and the burning execution. Most notably, the IS suspects implicated in those crimes are all connected to Ilhami Bali, a Turkish national who was allegedly an IS emir in charge of the Turkish-Syrian border and remains on Ankara’s most wanted list.

Even before the Syrian war, Bali was on the radar of the police for links to al-Qaeda. He was eventually detained but remained only briefly behind bars. By the time he was handed a jail sentence in 2015, he had already vanished and joined IS in Syria. Court documents show his mobile phone remained under surveillance and his conversations exposed clues about IS attacks and movements across the border. And though his phone occasionally emitted signals from Turkish territory, authorities failed to capture him and the tapping was later discontinued.

Similarly, the Suruc bomber and one of the Ankara assailants were already wanted by the police before the attacks. Their parents had notified the police in 2014 that the two brothers were missing and had probably joined IS in Syria. As it turned out, it was Bali’s cell that helped the brothers to cross to Syria and return for the attacks. Lawyers representing the families of victims of the attacks have repeatedly accused authorities of negligence and turning a blind eye to the activities of the cell.

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