Jinns, lies and videotape: how a Turkish family got itself arrested for murder live on TV

A horrific story of murder and child sexual abuse has unfolded before Turkish viewers’ eyes, as family members who appeared on a television programme to appeal for help finding missing relatives were themselves arrested by police live on air on suspicion of murder.

Havva Palu and her sons, İsa and Fatih, first appeared on a Dec. 24 television programme on ATV presented by Müge Anlı, who for more than a decade has hosted a show attempting to solve cold cases, sometimes in cooperation with the police and judicial authorities.

The Palus’ story played out in the following weeks as Anlı, in front of a studio audience, delved into their testimonies on events stretching back more than a decade. Yet as their version of events became ever more twisted and contradictory, another story emerged that would see police arrest the family live on TV on Jan. 9 and lead them off to the applause of Anlı and the audience.

When they made their first appearance on the show, the family asked Anlı to help them find Havva’s daughter Meryem and granddaughter Melike, who had gone missing in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Havva’s other daughter Emine Ustael and her husband Tuncer Ustael also joined the television show, all giving similar accounts about the missing women. 

Meryem and Melike, they said, had been abducted by another family with blood ties to the Palu clan. The Palus said they were surrounded by enemies following and threatening them, and added that neighbours have been eavesdropping on their home and filing false complaints to the police.

Havva Palu and Fatih Palu
Havva Palu and Fatih Palu

Yet from the very beginning, the shifting testimonies and inconsistencies in the Palu family’s stories, which emerged over almost 20 hours of screen time on Anlı’s show, puzzled many people to the extent that there are now family trees shared on social media to help those who want to understand the case.

Other people involved in the case, including guests who joined the television show as witnesses, said the family had been involved in numerous criminal activities. 

And, as those the Palus described as enemies appeared on Anlı’s show to respond to allegations against them, they painted a far more disturbing picture of the family as an abusive, even murderous, criminal gang dominated by Tuncer Ustael.

Ustael maintains his control over the family, they said, by claiming to hold power over jinn, often malevolent supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology. 

The family said in around 2008 Meryem had brought her children to her family home and accused her husband, Ahmet, of forcing her into prostitution. Her husband was killed soon afterwards, and her father Harun Palu confessed to the crime and went to jail, while the rest of the Palus said they had to resort to living in a car to escape threats from the dead man’s family. Harun’s stint in jail, however, was a short one, and the father of the family was out by 2011.

Meryem and her daughter Melike, the Palus told Anlı, went missing while the family was living in that car. In 2011, Harun, Havva and İsa went to the police and said that Tuncer Ustael had killed Meryem and her 6-year old daughter.

Havva told police that Tuncer had made Melike drink ethyl alcohol to save her from jinns, causing the young girls’ death. Havva also told police she had wrapped Melike in a white sheet for Tuncer to bury her.

Following their testimonies, the police searched the places the two women were said to be buried but found nothing.

Emine Ustael (Palu) and Tuncer Ustael
Emine Ustael (Palu) and Tuncer Ustael

The rest of the family later retracted their 2011 testimonies and now say that Meryem and Melike were kidnapped. Tuncer, they now maintain, has gone to great lengths to protect the family, even selling the family’s assets to raise money to do so.

Yet serious doubt was cast on the family’s version of events when a witness came forward to say he had seen Melike before her death being tied to a tree by Tuncer, who was revealed to have a long criminal record for forgery and violence.

The father of the family, Harun, did not change his testimony, but was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was also detained on Wednesday by the police as a witness. 

Meanwhile, the appearance on the show of Meryem’s other child, her son Recep, brought to light further serious allegations of abuse by the Palu family. Recep joined the television show on Dec. 28, his image blurred, and told the story of what drove him to escape his family in 2008, when he was just nine years old. 

Recep described how he had twice run away from the family before then, but the police returned him despite signs of abuse. The second time he tried to flee from his family, he said he had also tried unsuccessfully to save his sister Melike. On his third attempt, police records show Recep was taken into state custody after medical reports proved that he had been tortured and raped. Recep named his rapists as Tuncer and Havva’s son, İsa.

Neighbours said that at some point before the show was filmed, Tuncer and Emine were also accused of abusing their two children, who have also been taken into state custody. Tuncer was detained by the police for five days for illegally trying to reach his children after he appeared on the show. He was later released and returned to the television studios. The couple denied the allegations and say they were victims of a conspiracy by their neighbours.

Further allegations of child abuse came to light when Tuncer and Emine’s son went missing in Istanbul. Anlı related information provided by police who said they had found the boy with a needle in one of his buttocks after taking him to the police station. Despite that, he was returned to his family, who confirmed that he had been pierced with a needle, but blamed this on masked kidnappers they said had abducted him.

While trying to convince the couple to give their children to social services in November, the police had to use tear gas to get them out of the house. Emine, who had several bruises on her face and body, says she was injured when the police tear gassed their house. However, she had previously filed a domestic violence complaint against Tuncer. Today she says someone impersonating her filed the complaint and maintains that her husband has never beaten her. 

The Turkish police has made enormous efforts to solve the cases surrounding the family, but because the family for years continually changed address and switched police jurisdictions, were unable to file a definitive case against them.

What shocked the audience most was that this meant, despite the many reports, evidence, and complaints against them, the family has never been effectively prosecuted.

Television show's host Müge Anlı
Television show's host Müge Anlı

The show’s presenter Müge Anlı even invited a Muslim cleric to her programme to alleviate the family members’ concerns about jinns, hoping they would then reveal the truth about Tuncer. However, despite all these efforts, the family stuck to their story. They continued protecting Tuncer even when he suddenly accused Havva of killing Meryem and Melike.

On the other hand, viewers have been dumbfounded as to why the family would voluntarily appear on the television programme if they had participated in numerous crimes as suspected. Some said that, given that they had avoided punishment for years, the family members simply thought they could get away with it. But according to the family’s lawyer, they are sincere about wanting to find Meryem and Melike

The lawyer, Alper Bayrak, told BBC Turkish he had advised his clients to apply to appear on Anlı’s show as the case was closed in 2014 and he did not have the means to find new evidence required to reopen the case file. 

Ceyhun Yaşar Halıcı, a lawyer who has followed the case closely, told BBC Turkish that the family members stood accused of rape, murder, looting, child abuse, depriving people of their liberty, torture, perjury, and tampering with evidence.

Tuncer is being investigated on suspicion of killing and burying Meryem, state run Anadolu Agency has said. In total seven members of the family have been apprehended in connection with the investigation, including Emine, Harun, Havva, İsa and Fatih. The family’s home has been cordoned off.

Debate has raged across Turkey as to what conditions could create such a dysfunctional family. Many have also questioned how state institutions could so utterly fail at protecting minors, and many people also question how such a complicated case could only be brought to light on a television show. 

The appalling details and bizarre nature of the convoluted case captured the imagination of thousands of Turks on social media, and as the story reached its climax on Wednesday an abundance of memes was posted on Turkish accounts depicting the Palus as characters in a horror movie. 

Some say the broadcasts have turned the event into a spectacle they described as “violence pornography”. Moreover, many found it disturbing that witnesses who had felt compelled at their own risk to come forward on television due to allegations cast against them by the family.