New evidence has revealed that two F-16 fighter jet pilots who were accused by prosecutors of dropping a bomb during a coup attempt in 2016 returned to base with their payload intact and that the aircraft alleged to have been used in the bombing was never flown.
The revelations came during a hearing at the Ankara 4th High Criminal Court on February 14, 2018 in case file No. 2017/43, when the two F-16 pilots finally had their day in court after nearly two years in pre-trial detention. The pilots explained what really happened on the night of the coup when they were recalled to duty and scrambled for an anti-terror combat mission. Among the major discrepancies in the indictment was the fact that an F-16 that was identified as having dropped a bomb on a police base actually never left the ground that day according to an expert report.
What is more, the pilots told the court the gruesome details of how they were subjected to torture and inhuman treatment under detention and how the police extracted false statements by threatening them with their lives and the rape and torture of the wives. They were forced to sign false statements under duress that were later recanted when they had the opportunity to defend themselves in the first hearing of the case.
Lt. Mehmet Çetin Kaplan and Capt. Ertan Koral, the two pilots who were accused of dropping a GBU-10 bomb on the Police Aviation Unit from an F-16 jet with tail number a 94-0110, said the flight recorder data shows this aircraft never flew on July 15, pointing to major fallacies in the indictment. They said if the expert report that identified another jet with a different tail number as the one that dropped the bomb was accurate, contradicting the prosecutor’s allegations, then the second aircraft flew 45 minutes after the blast at the police aviation base.
The pilots categorically denied that they dropped a bomb on the police aviation base, saying that the weapons payload was intact when they returned to base and recorded as such in the flight manifest filed by the ground crew.
Capt. Koral, a 35-year-old F-16 instructor, was assigned to the 4th Main Jet Base’s 143rd Squadron at Ankara’s Akıncı Air Base, now renamed Mürted. He went to work as usual on the morning of July 15, 2016 and conducted a training flight with another lieutenant as planned. He and his trainee were debriefed in the afternoon on the morning flight as part of standard operating procedure. He was planning to go home as flights on Friday usually wrap up early and take his son to the pool. As he was about to get on the shuttle bus home, the commander of the fleet asked him to stay, citing a possible operation targeting terrorist groups.
Later he and some other pilots on the base were told by the commander that they might soon soon be going on a terror combat mission (Terörle Mücadele Hareketi, or TMH) and therefore should rest and turn off their cell phones for security. The commander told them to go to operations for a briefing at the 141st Squadron, where he and others were told about a possible air operation against illegal armed groups. He was assigned to a jet as second pilot, with Kaplan the first pilot. They would be flying an F-16 Block D, a two seat fighter jet, as the wing aircraft to a lead F-16 fighter jet flown by pilots Ekrem Aydoğdu and Mustafa Azimetli. Both aircraft took off at around 22:00 hours, and the lead F-16 pilot instructed the wing jet to maintain a position northeast of Ankara at some 20,000 feet.
In his testimony Koral said it takes around 40 to 45 minutes for a pilot to take off after the briefing, which means he and the other pilots took off from the base at around 21:15. He said all communications with the outside including the use of cell phones was prohibited according to the rules in effect for operations, especially for counterterrorism operations, to prevent any leaks. The first reports of the military mobilization came in at 22:28, when some TV networks started covering the blocking of an Istanbul bridge. The first official reaction to the mobilization was made by then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who was interviewed by NTV at 23:02. Neither the pilots nor the ground crew or officers at Akinci Air Base knew what would happen.
There was nothing unusual about the scramble orders given the fact Turkey was hit by multiple and deadly terrorist attacks in 2015 that were blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Air Force was often called in to provide air support in counterterrorism operations, and the military has been developing its capabilities of targeted airstrikes in urban settings in the event of terrorist incidents. As a result Koral and others never questioned the orders. In fact Koral recalled that he was on standby on the tarmac with a bomb payload during the August 30, 2015, National Victory Day celebrations and would have been in the air quickly if a terrorist attack had occurred in Ankara.
The origin of the explosion at the Gölbaşı Police Aviation Unit was not identified according to the court documents, and it was not ascertained that the blast was in fact caused by a bomb from a jet. Koral questioned whether the blast could have been caused by technical failures at the aviation base where a fuel tanker was located and whether a chopper or artillery fire could have caused the explosion. The investigators did not look into the cause of the blast.
Furthermore, the 141-page report that was produced by an expert team of 18 people who examined all the F-16 fighter jets between July 23 and August 11, 2016 gave detailed information about the jets, their flight plans, configurations, take-off and landing times, transcripts of communications, payloads and other information. The key information in the report, submitted to the prosecutor on August 12, 2016, included data from Crash Survival Flight Data Recorder (CSFDR), commonly known as a black box, which collects data on the aircraft and helps inspectors to better assess the aircraft after operations and especially in the case of crashes.
According to the indictment Koral and his lead pilot flew an F-16 with tail number 94-0110, which was identified by the prosecutor as the jet that bombed the police aviation unit in Ankara. The indictment claimed that the lead jet flown by pilots Aydoğdu and Azimetli marked the target with a laser and the wing jet piloted by Koral and Kaplan dropped one GBU-10 bomb on the target at 23:18, killing seven people. However, the CSFDR data show that this jet was never flown on the night of the coup. The last recorded flight by the jet bearing tail number 94-0110 took place on July 14. In other words the F-16 jet that was claimed to have flown on the night of the coup and bombed the police aviation unit actually never took off.
Another twist in the court documents can be found in the expert report, which listed an F-16 with tail number 94-1562 as the jet that bombed the police aviation unit, contradicting the prosecutor’s finding that tail number 94-0110 bombed that target. According to the report, jet number 94-1562 was in the vicinity of the Gölbaşı district. Mysteriously, most of the crucial CSFDR data on jet 94-1562 was missing in the report. While detailed information was provided for the other jets in the report, it did not show the location data, flight path, bombing coordinates if any or the time of the bombing for jet number 94-1562.
The only information that was included in the report about jet 94-1562 is its take-off and landing times. Even that limited information was enough to conclude that this jet could not have bombed the police aviation unit, either, because the take-off time for 95-1562 was recorded at 24:01, 45 minutes after the blast reported at the police aviation unit. In other words, the second jet that was identified by the expert report as the one that dropped the bomb was on the ground at the time of the explosion.
It gets more complicated. According to another report included in the court papers, the jet with tail number 94-0110 had only one GB-10 bomb when it returned to the airbase, leading to claims that the missing bomb was the one that was dropped on the target. It turned out that the plane was loaded at the beginning with only one GB-10 and that the second chamber was left empty because there were no bombs in storage. This was verified in the inspection carried out on the jet’s weapons delivery system.
A technical examination of the release mechanism showed that the position of the wires and pins did not indicate any firing of a bomb from the jet. Pilot Koral said just like hand swabs to determine whether a person had fired a gun or not from powder residue imprints in the palm, the release mechanism on the F-16 had similar features, which confirms if a bomb was released from the aircraft.
The prosecutor also made another mistake in identifying the pilots’ call signs, which he recorded as “Aslan 1” and “Aslan 2.” In their testimony in court, the pilots said they used the call sign “Kurt,” not Aslan as claimed in the indictment.
Asked whether he found it strange that he remained in the air for one-and-a-half hours without doing anything, Koral replied he had made similar runs many times before, staying some three hours over the Aegean after refueling in the air as ordered by his commanding officer.
Koral and his lead pilot returned to the airbase a little after midnight as instructed. He went home in the morning. Early on July 19 the police came to his home and took him to the prosecutor to give a statement, after which he was released. In the evening the police again came to his home and brought him back to the same prosecutor, who requested his arrest without asking any questions.
Like Koral, lead pilot Kaplan was also told by the fleet commander that there might be a TMH operation and that he should remain on standby for a recall to the base. He testified that he had flown flights until July 14 and had worked in the office on July 15 and went home in the afternoon to prepare for a guest he had invited for a family gathering. However, he was recalled to the base for a TMH operation at around 16:00 or 17:00 and returned for a briefing. He flew with Koral as he had done many times before on last-minute duty assignments. He corroborated what co-pilot Koral had said in court. He was ordered to make another solo flight and remained in the air as instructed.
Kaplan pointed out many contradictions in the indictment and evidentiary case file as Koral had done and added that according to the expert report the first plane he flew was fully fueled, which is odd given the fact that no planes were refueled on the ground after 22:30. He said he landed his plane at around 24:00, meaning his plane’s fuel must have been depleted rather than full. He denied dropping a bomb and said if he used his weapons payload, it would have been recorded on a separate voucher, which he did not file with the ground crew because no weapon was used during his flight.
Pilots were tortured to extract false confessions
Thirty-two-year-old first lieutenant and F-16 fighter pilot Kaplan was assigned to the 142nd fleet at Ankara’s 4th Main Jet Base. He had flown jets patroling the Syrian border and Aegean airspace, participated in NATO coalition flights and was tasked with various counterterrorism missions. He was detained by police and intelligence officers at gunpoint when he, his wife and one-and-a-half-year-old baby were in the car, leaving a residential complex assigned to military officers. The complex was located next to Akıncı Airbase, which was bombed in counter-coup operations, and wanted to take his family out of the conflict zone.
When he was stopped by officers armed with MP5 semi-automatic weapons, Kaplan showed his military ID. He had no weapon on him and complied with police instructions without protest. Yet one officer suddenly opened the door of the car, dragged him from his seat and pushed him to the ground. He was handcuffed from behind, and officers started kicking and punching him in front of his family.
“I’m going to share some of the words I heard from these people. These statements included things like ‘Let’s burn their homes. Their mothers and wives are halal [allowed] for us [to use as sex slaves], and let’s decapitate their children’,” Kaplan testified in court. His wife was taken out of the car as well. One officer grabbed the baby from the arms of his mother and threw him on the ground, while another was improperly touching his wife. “The last thing I remember while being detained is the crying of my baby on the ground and my wife’s attempt to pick him up,” Kaplan recalled. He had nearly passed out from the beatings he received and lost track of time. He was dragged on the ground and put in another vehicle. Although Kaplan told the officers he recently had knee surgery, an officer started hitting him on the knee when he was in the car.
The beatings continued in the car, and at one point one man drew his gun and loaded it and asked others to let him shoot Kaplan in the head. The driver told the man to be patient, and a minute later the car stopped, when the pilot was taken out and thrown to the ground in an area where many people were present. He was turned face upward on the ground under the sun with his hands cuffed in back. He could not see anybody in the strong glare of the sun. From time to time, somebody approached him just to give him another kick and hurl insults.
Then a van came, and he was put on the floor between the seats. The officers who got in the van stepped on him before sitting down. The journey took an hour, during which time he was abused, with some squeezing his genitals and others stomping on his head. “One of them said he holds the record for sodomizing people with a police baton and that wanted to make a new record with me,” Kaplan told the judge. The vehicle stopped by one of the makeshift centers for detainees, but the driver was told the place was full and Kaplan was taken somewhere else. “You should thank God they did not take you to the sports hall,” one said sarcastically. The sports hall was known as a notorious place where widespread torture took place in the aftermath of the failed coup.
The van made a stop at another sports hall, where he was taken out of the vehicle and forced to walk a narrow path to the main hall. On the way he was kicked and punched by both police and civilians who were lined up along the pathway. His hands were swollen from the cuffs and the police stuck a sharp instrument into his hand while taking them off. For the first two days he was provided neither food nor water. He was denied toilet visits and forced to stay awake and constantly sit on the ground on his knees. The beatings also continued. He passed out on the third day, and when he woke up he was still being kicked by the police.
Kaplan described the scene in the sports hall as a “slaughterhouse,” with some people naked and others in hospital gowns. Blood was everywhere. Some people’s faces were burned beyond recognition. “In one incident I witnessed, I saw a short, partially bald, brown man in a red T-shirt who I believe was the police chief and who called himself Azrael – the angel of death – giving orders to some eight to 10 people wearing shirts that said ‘çevik kuvvet’ [standard issue shirts for rapid deployment forces in the police] to lynch a young lieutenant. In the end one of them said the lieutenant was not breathing, and he was taken away. I never saw that lieutenant again,” Kaplan recounted.
In another incident a police chief in civilian clothes told a detained military officer who had been assigned to a mechanized unit that his wife would be brought to the interrogation room and would be raped, according to Kaplan’s testimony. Police used to grab some detainees and drag them to the interrogation rooms, and when they came back they had swollen faces and black eyes, apparently from torture and abuse.
Kaplan said he had a chance to talk to some of them after their interrogation. For example, 1st Lt. Musa Kılıçaslan, who had been injured in a counterterrorism operation against the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), told Kaplan he was hosed down and then subjected to electric shocks until he passed out. Lt. Yücel Canpolat told him the police threw acid on him. “I talked to many people whose heads were were fractured or whose ribs and other bones were broken,” Kaplan recalled, adding that the doctors refused to put any allegations of torture in the medical reports, and when some of them wanted to write a report to document abuse, they were prevented from doing so by the police.
The police were telling detainees that Turkey had suspended its treaty obligations in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and could do anything they wanted to detainees including killing them and easily get away with it. “You are going to be our bitches for 30 days,” the detainees were told in a reference to an extension of the legal detention time from four to 30 days under the state of emergency declared by the government.
Kaplan lost eight kilos in eight days of detention between July 16 and July 24, 2016. He was taken to a court in Sıhhiye on July 24 under threat of death and did not even remember seeing a judge. He recanted his initial statement that was taken under duress and threat. His second statement was taken by a prosecutor in the Sincan Courthouse on October 4, 2016. When he asked for his attorney to be present during the deposition, the prosecutor said his attorney could not be located and continued the interrogation. His lawyer disputed the prosecutor’s claims during the hearing.
His third statement was taken by a police counterterrorism team on November 2, 2016 when he was taken from his prison cell on the pretext of a meeting with his attorney. Instead, a statement was extracted from him in a dark room with no surveillance camera. The police threatened to bring his wife to the prison unless he signed a fabricated statement. He initially refused to give a statement and asked for an attorney, but the police showed him a picture of a semi-naked woman and said his wife would be tortured like the one in the picture unless he did what was asked of him.
In the end he succumbed to the threats and pressure and signed a statement similar to the one presented by the police. Some parts were filled in by the police, who brought in a female lawyer to sign the statement, although Kaplan had no idea who she was until later. He was asked to sign the statement without reading what was written.
Like his colleague, pilot Koral went through a similar order under threat and intimidation. He gave his first statement on July 20, 2016 under duress and was forced to sign the statement without reading what was actually written in the deposition. In an unusual move, on September 29, 2016, he was taken out of his cell for a new deposition amid rumors that the detained fighter pilots had been summarily executed in extrajudicial killings. He was terrified that he would be murdered when he was put in a prison transport vehicle.
When he was brought to the courthouse in Ankara he was told to wait in front of the courtroom, where he would give a new statement as opposed to the prosecutor’s office, which was unusual. While he was waiting by the door, a plainclothes policeman approached him and started talking to him. The police urged him to give a statement in line with what was reported in the pro-government media, admit to the accusations that he bombed the police aviation unit and admit to the wrongdoing. Koral responded by saying he did not bomb any place and that the accounts reported in the pro-government media were simply not true. The police officer showed him a photo of another F-16 pilot named Mustafa Azimetli, whom he knew, and photos of other people pictured as having been tortured and warned he would end up in the same position after the deposition if he did not listen to him and repeat what was reported in the pro-government media.
The pilot told the police that he simply wanted the truth come out and would tell the prosecutor what he knew and what happened. He said what he was asked to tell was simply not true and that the examination of the jet he flew proved his version of events. But the officer, after making several calls, came back and said if he did not give the statement extracted from Azimetli about what happened at the police aviation base, he would be taken to the counterterrorism police instead of prison and would be tortured.
Koral told the court that a gendarmerie officer who accompanied him from the prison to the courtroom witnessed the conversation he had with the officer and asked the court to identify the officer by reviewing the CCTV footage from inside the courthouse. The pilot was trembling as he had heard from other inmates the terrible accounts of torture and abuse perpetrated in the detention halls of the counterterrorism unit in Ankara. When he was summoned to the courtroom to give a statement, the police officer came inside as well.
The setup in the courtroom was quite strange. The prosecutor was sitting in the judge’s chair and a TV was on, airing the funeral services of people who were killed on the night of the coup. The prosecutor, clerk and two unidentified people whom Koral suspected to be police officers were shouting at him, asking him to keep his eyes on the TV and calling him names like “traitor.” Another prosecutor was coming in and out, sitting on the judge’s bench, shouting at him. Koral realized that these people were not interested in the truth and that he had to make a decision. He would either tell them what they wanted to hear and repeat the falsified statement drawn up by the police, or end up in detention where he would be tortured like the other people shown in the pictures.
His survival instinct kicked in, and he started telling lies that lead pilot Kaplan had dropped the bomb and that he tried to prevent him from doing so but failed. The prosecutor and others in the room were pleased and quickly wrapped up his deposition, after which he was returned safely to the prison. After 18 months in pre-trial detention, Koral recanted the statements taken under duress when he finally got a chance to defend himself in front of the judges. He told the court all the details of what really happened when he flew that night.
Another major challenge for the detained pilots was their inability and/or difficulty in accessing the evidentiary case files crucial for their defense. For example Kaplan complained in court that he was not provided with copies of the evidence, statements and documents filed with the court and used against him. He said 19 DVDs sent by the court were not delivered to him in prison, preventing him from mounting an effective defense.
He had earlier asked for a continuance from the judge until he was able to review all the evidence in his prison cell; however, Judge Selfet Giray rejected his petition and issued a judgement on February 12, 2018 saying that if he did not take his turn in the defense lineup as scheduled, he would consider that the defendant had exercised his right to remain silent and move on to hearing the other defendants in the case. As a result, he was forced to give his defense without seeing the entire case file. His conversations with the attorney in prison were recorded in both audio and video, and a prison official was ordered to be present while he met with his attorney.
He is still in prison today.
The full 163-page transcript of the defense statements and cross-examination of the F-16 pilots is posted below: