Man who burnt down cultural centre in Istanbul for ‘Ottoman insult’ defiant after release

Mehmet Ali Aligul set alight the Mujdat Gezen Cultural Centre in Istanbul

Mehmet Ali Aligul, a 39-year-old shuttle bus driver, who was detained yesterday by police for setting alight the Mujdat Gezen Arts and Culture Center in Istanbul’s Kadikoy district, was released from custody on Thursday.

Upon his release Aligul said, “I did it as a reaction against Mujdat Gezen’s insult targeting the granddaughter of (Ottoman Sultan) Abdulhamid the second.”

The suspect, arrested after he was recognised from video footage of the incident, confessed the attack in his first testimony but later denied his initial statement of being under the influence of alcohol.

“I was not under the influence of alcohol, I did it because of my national sentiments,” Aligul told reporters.

Gezen had said on a TV programme that he had found Nilhan Osmanoglu, a great grand-daughter of Abdulhamid the second, “attractive.”

After the attack, Aligul posted several pictures on social media saying he regretted that the building didn’t burn down completely. Other photos featured Aligul with an automatic rifle, pictures of President Erdogan, and his electoral card showing he voted for the Islamist-leaning ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The arsonist had written, “God has no stick to beat them with. Bastard Mujdat Gezen Culture Center was burning all night. If they dare insult Ottoman descendants, they will die and perish,” after setting the centre on fire.

Mujdat Gezen Arts and Culture Center was set on fire in the early hours of 20 February. Video footage from security cameras showed a man, later identified as Aligul, pouring petrol on the building before setting it on fire.

A veteran Turkish actor, Mujdat Gezen, is known for his staunch opposition to the AKP and President Erdogan. The actor has accused the government of eroding secularism and Islamising the country.

Commentators have said Erdogan’s “neo-Ottoman” rhetoric, especially in recent years, has contributed to polarising society between the pious and secular. The government has denied these charges saying they are reclaiming Turkey’s core-values. AKP supporters formed a group called the ‘Ottoman Hearths’, which critics say is a paramilitary group similar to the ‘Grey Wolves’, an affiliate of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and is responsible for similar attacks.

Update: The Anadolu Republic Prosecutor Ali Tosun has objected to Aligul’s release and has issued a request for his arrest.