Friday 15 December 2017

What turned Turkish policeman into art gallery assassin?

assassin: Mevlut Mert Altintas pictured moments after shooting Andrei Karlov, Russia's Ambassador to Turkey
assassin: Mevlut Mert Altintas pictured moments after shooting Andrei Karlov, Russia's Ambassador to Turkey

LAST Monday, Mevlut Mert Altintas checked in to a hotel in central Ankara and called in sick to the local riot police unit where he had worked for the past two-and-a-half years.

Then he shaved, put on a smart black suit, and walked to the Ankara Centre for Contemporary Art, flashing his police ID to sidestep the metal detectors at the entrance. Minutes later he drew a pistol and shot Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador, at least eight times in the back.

Shortly afterwards, Altintas, too, was dead, gunned down by his former colleagues. Now, Russian and Turkish investigators are trying to establish what turned this 22-year-old policeman into a murderer.

Altintas's story begins in a small town called Soke on Turkey's Aegean coast, where his parents still live. Locals describe the district as neither rich nor poor, though it is overshadowed by the holiday towns of the coast and the splendour of Ephesus, the ancient city that lies 16km to the north.

While Turkey's western provinces are renowned for their more liberal politics, in Soke, the graffiti of right-wing ultra-nationalists mars the walls.

The town used to be a hub for cotton production, and the killer's parents, now in their 50s, both used to work in a fabric factory before they retired.

Both have been arrested, though neither has been charged. "They are normal people," said one neighbour. "They didn't socialise much but we didn't ever have any problems with them.

"His mother was in shock. She said, 'How could my son do a thing like this?'."

After leaving home and joining the Ankara police, Altintas moved into a flat above a shop selling children's bicycles in Demetevler, a working-class suburb of the Turkish capital. He did not stay long and moved out shortly after the coup attempt that rocked Turkey in July, selling all his possessions before he departed.

His next home was an apartment in a cul-de-sac in the poor, densely populated northern suburb of Kecioren. Like Soke, the neighbourhood has a reputation for nationalism. He shared the flat with a lawyer friend who has also been arrested.

One neighbour said the lawyer, who owned the flat, was from the majority Kurdish south-east region.

On December 14, Altintas made a hotel reservation near the gallery, and two days later visited the exhibition. Timur Ozkan, the exhibition co-ordinator, told a newspaper that gallery staff remembered seeing him wearing exactly the same suit with a police badge pinned on to it as the one he would wear when he attacked the Russian ambassador.

"He joined the exhibition and a little while later he left," Mr Ozkan said of the sighting.

"Of course no one had any suspicions. Our guess now is that either he got confused about the date of the exhibition that he planned to attack - or that he was performing a reconnaissance mission."

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