The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Turkey’s purge turns a former national hero into a fugitive

Hakan Sukur celebrates a goal during a game in 2003. (Mustafa Ozer/AFP via Getty Images)

There was a time when Hakan Sukur was his country's idol and a household name even elsewhere. In 2002, the rangy striker was part of the unheralded national soccer team that achieved perhaps Turkey's greatest sporting triumph -- making it all the way to the semifinals of the World Cup held in Japan and South Korea. In their victorious third-place match, he notched what is still the fastest World Cup goal ever scored.

After his retirement from the game, Sukur did not leave the limelight. A popular figure, he threw in his lot with the ruling Justice and Development Party (or AKP), led by then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan -- now Turkey's powerful president. In 2011, Sukur was elected to parliament on the party's ticket.

But in the years since, he has gone from being an insider, close to the corridors of power, to a fugitive.

Sukur is connected to the movement of Turkish imam Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who has lived in the United States since 1999 and is accused of being the mastermind behind the failed, bloody coup attempt of July 15. Now, Sukur is one of the more high-profile figures to be sought by authorities amid the ongoing purge of suspected "Gulenists" in Turkish society and government that has seen more than 35,000 people detained in less than a month and tens of thousands more suspended from their jobs as academics, judges, military officials and so on.

Turkey's purge marks endgame in Islamist civil war

On Friday, prosecutors in Turkey's western province of Sakarya charged Sukur with "membership of an armed terror group," a reference to the government's view of Gulen's organization. Sukur is believed to have left the country; according to some reports, he's in the United States.

According to Hurriyet Daily News, a court has authorized the seizure of Sukur's properties in the country. His father, Selmet, was detained after being found at a mosque. He, like his son, is accused of providing financial support to Gulen's organization. Turkey is seeking Gulen's extradition from the United States, but U.S. officials say they have yet to see sufficient evidence implicating the septuagenarian cleric in the coup plot.

Critics of Turkey's post-coup attempt crackdown say the family members of suspected Gulenists overseas are being systematically targeted by authorities. The state's dragnet has also encompassed the detention or arrest of dozens of journalists as well as summonses for hundreds of diplomats posted in missions overseas.

Sukur resigned his parliamentary post in 2013 after the AKP started shutting down schools linked to Gulen -- a crackdown widely seen as a response to a string of corruption trials instigated by Gulenist prosecutors that implicated Erdogan and his government. Four ministers lost their jobs, but Erdogan emerged largely unscathed.

What the West doesn't get about Erdogan and Turkey

In the years since, the AKP has waged a tacit war against Gulenists in the country's judiciary, police services and military. The coup attempt -- and the purge that it provoked -- is just the most dramatic episode in the rivalry between the two camps.

Sukur presents a particularly telling illustration of how Gulen and Erdogan came together and fell apart: both men reportedly attended Sukur's first wedding in the mid-1990s.

The former soccer star was tried in absentia in June on grounds that he insulted Erdogan on social media. He's not the only major Turkish athlete to fall afoul of the state because of his Gulenist connections.

Enes Kanter, who plays for the NBA's Oklahoma Thunder, was one of numerous Turks who attended Gulen-funded schools. His support for the spiritual preacher endured, and his refusal to repudiate Gulen led his own family to disown him.

"Today I lost my father, my mother, my siblings and all of my relatives of 24 years," the 24-year-old wrote in a recent statement. He signed his last name "Gulen."

More on WorldViews

What the West needs to understand about Turkey and Erdogan

How Donald Trump explains Turkey, and Turkey explains Donald Trump

Erdogan always feared a coup. He was proved right.

What the search for a missing Ottoman skull says about Turkish politics

The execution of a former Turkish leader that still haunts Erdogan