ROME — When Bilal Erdogan arrived in the Italian city of Bologna in 2014, he was accompanied by a team of bodyguards. He was also met, quite literally, with a wall of protests. His security detail was delayed while his father, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arranged for diplomatic passports for them. Then graffiti kept appearing around the city: “Erdogan Terrorista” and “Kurdistan” being popular scrawls on the walls.
While the elder Erdogan was building his reputation as an elected strongman—a modern sultan maneuvering to quash a longstanding Kurdish rebellion, playing a tricky game with the so-called Islamic State just across the border from Turkey in Syria, suppressing rivals, and trying to rein in the military (factions of which recently staged an abortive coup), the younger Erdogan ostensibly came to Italy with the more modest goal of finishing his Ph.D. in international relations.
He had begun work on his degree in 2006 at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., and then switched to a branch of the school in Bologna, In 2014, when Bilal secured an Italian residency permit for two years for himself, his wife and their two young children, it looked like they would settle in for a while in style.
The Turkish family rented an expansive, posh apartment under Bologna’s famed medieval Two Towers in the historical center near the university campus, and the Italian foreign ministry put Bilal under what’s referred to as protective surveillance, essentially trailing him and his private security details with armed guards wherever he went.
Whether the Italian cops were there to protect him from anyone who might want to kidnap or assassinate the president’s son or family, or whether they wanted to keep an eye on who he met up with him, has never fully been disclosed (and of course one doesn’t exclude the other).
But in February of 2016, another set of cops was added to the surveillance detail. This time they were Italy’s financial police who informed the young Turk that he was under investigation for laundering around €1 billion ($1.12 billion) in cash, according to a summary of the court dossier, which was seen by The Daily Beast.
A month later, Bilal Erdogan was back in Turkey, citing “security concerns” for his and his family’s safety. Giovanni Trombini, his lawyer in Bologna, confirmed to The Daily Beast that he was not required to stay in the country because he has not been officially charged with any crime.
According to local media reports, Erdogan left quickly, sending the parents of his children’s friends a simple text that stated, “We are going back to Istanbul. Our security here is at risk. We will be back one day to say good-bye more calmly.”
That now seems unlikely.
Last week, a court in Bologna ruled that the investigation into the alleged money laundering shouldn’t be thrown out, but instead merited another six months of detective work. The allegations came to light when a private businessman and fierce opponent of President Erdogan, Murat Hakan Uzan, tipped Italian police that he had evidence the younger Turk was in Italy to hide his father’s funds.
According to the court documents, Uzan supplied a phone tap from December 2013, when the Turkish establishment nearly crumbled amid corruption allegations in a so-called gold-for-gas deal with Iran.
It is not clear how Uzan acquired the recording, but the aftermath of the coup attempt in Turkey last month, with many tens of thousands of people detained, arrested or fired throughout the military and the bureaucracy, and ongoing massive suppression of the independent press, suggests just how dense the networks of intrigue have been in the Turkish establishment and how ruthless Erdogan has become as he cracks down.
Back in 2013, Erdogan was the prime minister, and a number of his key allies were arrested along with many of their sons who were accused of helping hide illicit cash. It was then, alleges Uzan, who is living in exile in France, that Erdogan told his youngest son Bilal to get out of Turkey and take a wad of the family cash with him.
According to the wiretaps provided by Uzan to the Bologna investigators, Erdogan reportedly told his son on the phone, “Whatever you have in the house, take away, OK?” When the younger Erdogan reportedly asked if it was about the “operation” that led to his father’s associates’ arrest, the elder Erdogan said, “That’s what I’m talking about. I’ll send your sister, OK?”
Then, according to the wire transcripts in the criminal dossier, the younger Erdogan reportedly said, “Father, we have come together to Hasan. He can deal with it in the same way they did with the other money.” The father then apparently hung up.
A short time later, the younger Erdogan arrived in Bologna.
Now that Italian magistrates have ruled that the investigation should continue, President Erdogan says his son will not be going back to Italy. “My son is meant to return to Bologna to finish his doctorate but is in danger of being arrested,” the elder Erdogan said during a hastily arranged interview with Italian state news channel Rai News24 this week. “In [Bologna], they call me a dictator and demonstrate for the PKK [Kurdish militants]. Why does no one intervene? Is that the rule of law? This affair could compromise our relations with Italy.”
President Erdogan then added, “Italy judges should deal with the Mafia, not my son.”
Not surprisingly, the threat and harsh words angered Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who immediately tweeted, “In this country the judges follow the law and the Italian constitution, not the Turkish president. That's called ‘the rule of law.’”
In Turkey, increasingly, the law is called Erdogan.