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Oct 10, 2020

An American murder in Istanbul: Justice for Halla

Co-produced with PRX Logo

An American journalist and her mom are found murdered in Istanbul. Police say they caught the killer. Friends and family say the investigation was incomplete. In collaboration with ABC News and freelance reporter Fariba Nawa, we dig into the investigative files against the convicted killer and learn that the U.S. government chose not to get involved in the investigation. 

Reporter James Gordon Meek starts our story with a description of the work Halla Barakat and her mother, Orouba, did in Istanbul. Then Nawa pieces together what happened on the night of the murder, with help from one of the people who discovered the bodies.

Next, our team delves into the Turkish prosecutor’s case against the convicted killer and explains why relatives of the murdered women are not convinced the crime was solved. 

In the final segment, Nawa puts key questions directly to the convicted killer, and Meek seeks out a member of Congress who wants the U.S. government to pursue the case. 

Dig Deeper

Credits

Reported by: Fariba Nawa, James Gordon Meek, Pete Madden and Aaron Glantz

Produced by: Chris Harland-Dunaway

 Lead producer: Chris Harland-Dunaway; Coordinating Producer: Aaron Glantz

Edited by: Taki Telonidis

Production manager: Najib Aminy

Production assistance: Amy Mostafa and Brett Simpson

Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. Oud and percussion player: April Centrone.

Mixing:  Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Episode illustration courtesy of Molly Crabapple

Special thanks: ABC’s Cindi Galli, Engin Bas, Nicky DeBlois, Jake Lefferman, Ashley Louszko, Matthew McGarry, Beril Eski, Asma Al Omar and Karem Inal. Also to Breakdown Services.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Speaker 1: Support comes from MSNBC. As an election year Like no other heats up, turn to MSNBC for the context and clarity you need. For big debate nights, election night, and daily developments, the team at MSNBC will help connect the dots. Rachel Maddow, Nicole Wallace, Joy Reid, and Brian Williams host coverage of the pivotal moments. Steve Kornacki, breaks down the latest data at the Big Board, and the Road Warriors are embedded with the candidates as they make their final appeal to voters. The sprint to election day is here. Watch on MSNBC.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Three years ago, James Gordon Meek, was getting ready to go to work at ABC news in Washington, where he's a national security reporter. His phone beeped with a message.
James Gordon Me...: It was very early in the morning, and the message was from one of my colleagues who lives in Istanbul, Turkey. It said the two people I knew, and had worked with, had been found stabbed to death and their apartment there.
Al Letson: Their names were Halla Barakat and Orouba Barakat. Halla, was just 23 years old, Orouba was her mom, they were both living and working in Istanbul. Halla was an up-and-coming journalist, and an American citizen.
James Gordon Me...: The Barakat family is originally from Syria, but Orouba was living with relatives in North Carolina, when she gave birth to Halla. When Halla was a toddler, they moved back to Syria, and a few years later, they moved to the United Arab Emirates. In 2011, the Syrian civil war started. Syria's dictator Bashar Al-Assad tried to crush the uprising, his regime even dropped nerve gas on his own people.
Speaker  2: Victims frantically gasp for air, lips turned blue. Their bodies-
James Gordon Me...: Orouba was an outspoken activist against the Assad regime, and the United Arab Emirates forced her to leave, so Halla and Orouba moved to Turkey, where today there are three and a half million Syrian refugees. Halla worked for two news agencies there, doing important work in a very trouble place.
Halla Bakarat: Has suffered tremendously from indiscriminate bombardment on its field Hospitals, and-
James Gordon Me...: From her base in Turkey, Halla did stories about the Syrian civil war, refugee crisis, ISIS. One example of her really great reporting, is she did a story about sex slavery in Lebanon.
Halla Bakarat: Halla Barakat, Orient News, Istanbul.
Al Letson: And James, what about Holla's mom Orouba, she was pretty well known too, right?
James Gordon Me...: She had a big personality. She was known for throwing dinner parties, and helping people who were in need. She was a longtime journalist and commentator, and back in the eighties, she actually did an interview with the Turkish president at the time, which was a big deal. More recently, she was known for her activism against the brutality of the Syrian regime, she wasn't afraid to speak her mind and call people out. She even criticized the Syrian opposition, which is trying to overthrow Assad, and embarrass them with corruption allegations.
Al Letson: When did you first meet Halla and Orouba?
James Gordon Me...: Well, I cover terrorism and hostage cases for ABC News, and it was when I was a few years into investigating the Kayla Mueller hostage story.
Speaker 3: We turned out to a deeply troubling headline tonight, about the young American woman, Kayla Mueller. The honor student from-
James Gordon Me...: ABC did a lot of stories about Kayla Mueller. She was an American humanitarian aid worker, who was kidnapped by ISIS in Aleppo, Syria, in 2013 and she was killed 18 months later. I got to know Kayla's parents pretty well while I worked on the story, and then later I learned that Halla and Orouba had been trying to help Kayla the whole time she was a hostage. That's how we met.
Marsha: Okay-
James Gordon Me...: I have a tape of when Kayla's parents first spoke to Holl and Orouba, after their daughter was killed.
Marsha: Hi Orouba-
Orouba Bakarat: Good, Hi [inaudible]
Marsha: ... Hi Orouba.
Orouba Bakarat: Hi Marsha, How are you?
Marsha: We're glad to hear from you. Is Halla there as well?
Halla Bakarat: Yes I am here. Hi.
Marsha: Hi Halla, I wanted-
James Gordon Me...: In the call, they talk about how ISIS had allowed Kayla to leave a voicemail for Orouba, while she was in captivity. And listening back to this conversation, I can hear just how much Holla and Orouba cared about Kayla when they were consoling her parents.
Halla Bakarat: When we really don't know what happened to them, that hurts more than when we actually know what happened to them. And Kayla, is one of these people, her choice I think just unfortunately died with her.
Orouba Bakarat: Marsha, I just want to tell you that Kayla is really very dear to us, and we loved her so much, me and my daughter. And she's angel, I'm sure now she's in heaven.
James Gordon Me...: After Kayla's death, Halla came to New York, and did some work for ABC and we took a selfie in the newsroom, for Kayla's parents. She helped me by transcribing torture videos from Iraqi special forces, which ABC news had obtained. This was grizzly stuff, and I worried it was too much for her, but she looked at me squarely and said, "James, I am Syrian." She was tough. A few months later, Halla was dead.
Speaker 4: Go back now with the double murder mystery. This story involves an American born journalist and her mom.
Speaker 5: They appeared on[crosstalk 00:05:21]-
Al Letson: James, what I don't get is, they were murdered before The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul. And that got global attention, but it's like no one paid attention to Halla's murder, even though she was an American citizen.
James Gordon Me...: Well, it really bugged me that people were largely unaware that there was an American journalist, someone I knew and admired, who was murdered in Turkey. And from the beginning, I couldn't help but wonder if their murder had something to do with their work. So just the week before, Orouba had met with an ABC news producer based in Istanbul. She told them she had something huge, like nothing she'd ever gotten before. It was an urgent story about something happening across the border in Syria. We never learned what she had
Al Letson: As it turns out James, wasn't the only one left wondering what exactly happened to Halla and Orouba.
Fariba Nawa: These murders were hard to ignore.
Al Letson: That's, Fariba Nawa. she's a reporter living in Istanbul, but she's worked all over the world, wrote a book about women in the war in Afghanistan. She knows people who worked with Halla and Orouba, and she knows things work a little differently in this part of the world.
Fariba Nawa: The rules for journalism are different for women here. On the one hand, it can be easier to get access because people in power don't take you seriously. Like take Orouba, for example, she's this super, normal heavyset, middle-aged mom in a hijab, and she's flying under the radar, working all these amazing contacts across Syria and Turkey. But the other thing about reporting here, is if you do discover something big, the punishment can be bigger for women. It's like, how dare you?
Al Letson: For the past year, we've been working with Fariba in Istanbul, and James, and ABC news to learn as much as we can about the murders of Halla and Rubin Barakat, and why they've gotten so little attention. The information we've uncovered raises questions about whether Turkish authorities really discovered the truth behind the murders, and the deeper we dug, the more we wondered why the U.S. government chose not to be more involved in the case. The first thing Fariba, tried to do was reconstruct what happened the night Haalla and Orouba were discovered dead.
Fariba Nawa: Soon after I heard about the murders, I started reaching out to Halla's friends. That's how I got to know [Madie Batyrova 00:07:47] It was on a Thursday, back in September, 2017, that Maddie became worried about Halla. It had been four days since they talked, no phone call or anything, It was strange, out of character. And when Maddie tried Halla's cell, there was no answer. Maddy's a 20 something, with red streaked hair. I meet her in a café, where she and Halla used to hang out. She pulls out her phone and swipes through photos of Halla and her.
Maddie: This is the one we went dancing. This is a friend of ours, it was his birthday and we went out in a partying, dancing, and we all dressed up, and it was really nice. It was an amazing memory. It looks like girls' night out in New York.
Fariba Nawa: In the picture Halla, has long, wavy, brown hair and sage green eyes. Maddie and Halla were college buddies. They studied together in his Istanbul, and shared each other's secrets. So when Maddie got word that Halla hadn't shown up for work, she began to panic. She went to Halla and Orouba's apartment, with two other friends. Maddie, I head there. It's an orange apartment building, perched on a hillside, overlooking The Bosphorus strait as it snakes through Istanbul. What's it like to be back here?
Maddie: I mean, I don't really know. I don't know exactly how I feel right now, but I know that's her street. And I know once we go down there, everything's going to come back.
Fariba Nawa: Everything does come back. Maddie, and I walk up to the building, and peer up at the apartment. The details she remembers are as clear as the day it happened.
Maddie: Her lights were on, and nobody's answering, definitely something was wrong, and we could tell. And that's when we contacted the U.S. embassy, saying that a U.S. national was missing, and we haven't heard from her in over 24 hours.
Fariba Nawa: Maddie called the Istanbul police next. Her friends with her didn't speak Turkish, so she did the talking. When the officers arrived, Maddie says, they joked around and weren't taking the situation seriously.
Maddie: I pulled him aside and I said, "Sir, this is a very, very important situation, and we haven't heard from [inaudible 00:09:59], two days, not just one day. And this is not normal, and they're both journalists, and they have both been threatened in the past."
Fariba Nawa: The police tried the door, but it was locked, so they call the locksmith and waited. After he pulled up on a motorcycle, police took him and the other friends, who were both men, upstairs. The locksmith broke the lock, and open the door.
Maddie: My friends, who were right behind the police officers, they ran downstairs. They were like, "Oh my God, Oh my God."
Fariba Nawa: Her friends run down in a panic, Maddie did the opposite. She headed straight upstairs.
Maddie: Now when I went up the stairs, and I saw that the door was wide open, I looked into their apartments and I saw bodies shrouded with colors, and there was blood on the floor. I saw legs, exposed legs covered in blood. I saw detergent, washing powder all over the floor, sprinkled all over their bodies. It was laundry detergent and it was poured all around each body. So wherever there were bloodstains, there was powder on top, sprinkled on top.
Fariba Nawa: Was there any sign of struggle, dishes broken?
Maddie: Nothing was on the floor, broken. Nothing was out of place. I believe maybe the mother was ironing in that morning, so the ironing table was there. That's what I remember.
Fariba Nawa: Maddie, hasn't been back to the apartment since that summer night in 2017. She says it was too painful to even drive by the place, but she's decided to come with me because she hopes we can find new witnesses, or talk to the neighbors and uncover new information.
Maddie: It's scary.
Fariba Nawa: Oh, I'm Sorry, honey-
Maddie: [crosstalk] It's very scary.
Fariba Nawa: Take a deep. We walk up the one flight of the stone stairs to the apartment. Maddie stands in front of the door, her face is flushed, her voice shaky. The last time Maddie, knocked on this door, she was even more anxious.
Maddie: I remember me and my friends were sitting right here, and we were knocking, and we were putting out ear against the door, trying to hear if there's any movement. Maybe that they were being held hostage by somebody, so we were trying to get any sound.
Fariba Nawa: You thought they might even be held hostage?
Maddie: Yeah. I thought that there might be such a possibility. I did not think that the situation was as bad as what I saw later on. After what I saw, I was terrified.
Fariba Nawa: As Maddie stood there that day in 2017, days by the side of her friend's body, police asked her questions. She answered flatly in shock, then she went home. Halla and Orouba's murders, stunned the Syrian community in Turkey. Her friends were totally freaked out, Maddie didn't leave the house for at least a week. A friend of Halla's from work, went into action on social media and demanded justice. No one had any idea how this could have happened. Then a week later, Turkish police announced they made an arrest. Someone completely unexpected.
Speaker 6: Is been identified as a relative of the victims, and was arrested in the northwest province of Bursa. Orouba Barakat and her daughter Halla, were found dead in their apartment in Istanbul last Friday.
Fariba Nawa: The relative was a distant cousin of the Barakat family, named Ahmed Barakat. Turkish authorities said it was a straightforward case, Ahmed had done some work for Orouba, and came to the woman's house to collect money they owed him. Orouba refused to pay, they started arguing and it got physical. Then Ahmed grabbed the knife and killed Orouba. Halla rushed into the room and saw her mother on the floor in a pool of blood, then I met, killed her too. Within a few days, the story faded from the news.
Al Letson: For the Turks, this case was closed. But for the loved ones of Halla and Orouba, the official story wasn't adding up. This was supposed to be a family dispute, but how did Ahmed managed to kill both Halla and Orouba with little signs of struggle. And using laundry detergent to [inaudible] the odor, that seems like something only a professional might do. And if Halla was an American citizen, why weren't you as authorities getting involved too?
Fariba Nawa: Forget the fact that there was no outreach from anyone when this happened, we all deserve the truth.
Al Letson: That's coming up, on reveal.
Speaker 7: In the 1980s, America was clear cutting the last of its old growth forests, but then a small group of protestors started to stand in the way. Timber Wars, is a podcast about how the fight over ancient trees transformed, not just the Pacific Northwest, but the very way we think about forests, and a divided the nation, turning environmental conflicts into culture wars. Timber Wars, is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Subscribe now in Apple Podcasts, NPR One, Spotify, and at opb.org. Reveal is supported by Candid, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit organization. Every year, millions of nonprofits spend trillions of dollars around the world. Candid finds out where that money comes from, where it goes, and why it matters. That starts with asking questions like, are small nonprofits at risk of shutting down, Do corporate donors care about racial equity, or how concerned are foundations about the future of democracy? Learn more at candid.org/questions.
Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're looking at the murder of an American born journalist named Halla Barakat, and her mother Orouba. Their bodies were discovered in their Istanbul apartment in 2017. Our investigation straddles two continents. While reporter Fariba Nawa worked in Istanbul, ABC national security reporter James Gordon Meek, worked the case from the States.
James Gordon Me...: When we lost Halla and Orouba, the U.S. state department condemn the killings with a statement, but it seems like they didn't put a lot of thought into it. They misspelled both women's names, and didn't even mention that Halla, was a United States citizen. When an American is killed abroad, the FBI has legal authority to do an investigation. But right after the murders, my contacts at the civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, sent a letter to the FBI asking if they were investigating, and the letter they got back was vague and disappointing to say the least, I have it here. It appears they opened a preliminary inquiry, but the FBI doesn't really say whether they opened a case for Halla, it does say this, "The Turkish National Police respectfully declined the FBI's assistance, as Turkish National Police are very capable of conducting a thorough and complete investigation."
James Gordon Me...: More information has been pretty hard to come by, the FBI is a notoriously tight-lipped agency. Then I learned I'm not the only one trying to figure out what the FBI knows, Halla has a cousin, Suzanne Barakat, who was too. She's a doctor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She remembers when she learned the news.
Suzanne Barakat: I was wrapping up a shift at the hospital and driving home, and got a Facebook notification from her aunt, that she posted with their two pictures, "That to God we belong, and to God we return." And I was very confused, and so I called my dad and I said, "Am I misreading something, what's happening?" And he said, "No, it's true." I was pretty numb and hoping I could make it home In one piece.
James Gordon Me...: This kind of news would be a blow to anyone, but in Suzanne's case, it was surreal. Two years earlier, Suzanne's brother and two in-laws were murdered in North Carolina, in an anti-Muslim hate crime at UNC. So when she learned her cousins, Halla and Orouba had been murdered, she wanted answers. She fired up her email and she started making calls. Holding the phone with one arm, and her new baby with the other.
Suzanne Barakat: And I basically cold emailed H.R. McMaster, and requested a meeting with him concerning the murder of my American cousin. American journalist, who was killed in a stumble, and no one seemed to care.
James Gordon Me...: Lieutenant general, H.R. McMaster was president Trump's national security advisor. He had the power to shape the agenda on the National Security Council, NSC for short.
Suzanne Barakat: He A, responded, and B, it was a very courteous response, and said that he would have the directors of Syria and Turkey available, and here I was meeting with NSC members, with my baby-
James Gordon Me...: With your baby?
Suzanne Barakat: ... in the room.
James Gordon Me...: I met up with Suzanne and her baby in Washington, and she had just come from the state department. They put Suzanne in touch with the FBI agents stationed in Turkey, she told me. The agent there said that they needed Turkey's permission to intervene. Suzanne being a doctor, wanted to see the Turkish autopsy reports, and she also wanted updates as the case proceeded. The FBI agent agreed to help.
Suzanne Barakat: I had received those reassurances, however, that agent had quickly cycled out. And the next group that came on was pretty tight-lipped, and I haven't heard much since.
James Gordon Me...: So you really heard anything new, or from anybody in a year, more or less?
Suzanne Barakat: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Gordon Me...: That's a long time.
Suzanne Barakat: It's a very long time.
Al Letson: Our team learned later that the FBI did not open a case for Halla. A source inside the Bureau, tried to look up Hall's case in the FBI computer system, and found nothing. Back in Istanbul, reporter Fariba Nawa, wanted to know how the Turkish prosecutor built the murder case against Hall's cousin Ahmed Barakat, but the case was a black box.
Fariba Nawa: In Turkey court files aren't public like they are in the U.S., so I tried to interview people inside the investigation. I tried everyone from the prosecutor, to the gold Rolex, swearing homicide detective. Nobody would talk, but then surprisingly, they let me talk to this guy.
Speaker 8: [Arabic 00:21:47]-
Fariba Nawa: He was the court appointed Arabic interpreter.
Speaker 8: How are you, are you fine?
Speaker 9: Good, Thank you [crosstalk]
Fariba Nawa: Ahmed Barakat speaks Arabic, and the investigation and trial were in Turkish. Funny enough, the translator is named Ahmed M. Ahmed. We meet outside a cafe in Istanbul's famous Taksim Square. He's originally from Iraq, but now a proud Turkish citizen. He has a warm smile and a firm handshake. He starts by telling me about the police interrogation of Ahmed Barakat, leading up to the trial.
Speaker 8: At the beginning, we asked him, "Where you Orouba's house that day?" And he said, "No, I wasn't." "Did you call her?" "No, I did not call her."
Fariba Nawa: Then hee says, they showed Ahmed Barakat some security camera footage taken near Halla and Orouba's apartment.
Speaker 8: And they showed him, "Look who's this in the video, who's this person in the bus next to the driver?" And then Ahmed Barakat took a look, and he said, "Yes, that's me."
Fariba Nawa: He says, Ahmed Barakat's denials began to unravel. I then ask about the trial itself. Okay, so at what point did Ahmed confess?
Speaker 8: The minute that Ahmed Barakat walked into the court, his face got very yellow. He started to shake, and then they asked him, "So did you do it?" And he did not answer. And he was so scared. And then a couple of seconds later, he started to say, "I want to confess, I want to confess everything." After they left the court, he looked at the police with a smirk on his face. And he said, "You know where I put the weapon, I throw the knife and my shirt in the garbage."
Fariba Nawa: The murder weapon was never found, but Ahmed Barakat was convicted and got two consecutive life sentences. I wanted to know from Halla and Orouba's relatives, if the case was really that simple, but then I learned that they were not at the trial. The family told us authorities never notified them It was taking place. I talked to several Turkish lawyers, and they told me they've never heard of something like that happening. It seemed, we'd never be able to find out what evidence was presented against Ahmed Barakat. Then, a breakthrough. It came from one of Halla's close friends. A freelance journalist named [Ertan Karpazli 00:24:32].
Fariba Nawa: Ertan was heartbroken when Halla and Orouba were murdered. And after other reporters turned away from the case, he kept digging. Ertan got part of the prosecutor's report, and eventually we got the whole thing. Two giant, red binders, nearly 800 pages of evidence gathered by Turkish law enforcement. The FBI told the family that even they didn't have this. Ertan, and I decided to start at the beginning, and retrace Ahmed's footsteps on the night of the murder.
Ertan: If this is the bus stop, where Ahmed Barakat go off from-
Fariba Nawa: Very large mosque on the corner of the bus stop... In Istanbul, security cameras are everywhere along the streets. Police, snatch footage from the Metro Station, street corners and random shops. We're standing next to a jewelry store.
Ertan: Now Ahmed Barakat, was [inaudible] caught on this camera here in the corner, leaving from this bus stop, and I believe he took a right turn up here. So, if we walk up this road, we can follow his footsteps towards the house.
Fariba Nawa: The footage shows Ahmed walking directly toward Halla and Orouba's house. Then it shows him leaving the next day after the murder, except this time he's changed his clothes, and he's now carrying a plastic shopping bag.
Ertan: Which we believe may have been containing some kind of evidence. Now we don't know what's in the bag because the bag was never found.
Fariba Nawa: The fact that Ahmed, I'm at walk to and from Halla and Orouba's home, of course doesn't prove he killed them. So we looked to the report for other evidence against him, and how police prove this was all about money, that Orouba supposedly owed Ahmed. What we found raised questions. First, there's the DNA evidence. Police took swabs from Halla and Orouba's bodies two times, once the crime scene, and once during the autopsy. At the crime scene, they discovered DNA, Ahmed's, under one of Orouba's fingernails, suggesting she tried to fight them off. But the autopsy report says they found no DNA on Orouba's body, other than her own.
Fariba Nawa: Then there's the issue of how evidence was collected from the crime scene. This came up when Ertan, and I visited Orouba's brother [Maen Barakat 00:26:58].
Maen Barakat: [Arabic 00:26:58].
Ertan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So, [crosstalk 00:27:01]-
Fariba Nawa: Maen lives in a Syrian neighborhood of Istanbul, in a modest home full of plants. He has white hair, chain smokes and drinks 10 cups of thick, bittersweet, Syrian coffee a day. I asked him about Orouba and Halla, almost immediately-
Maen Barakat: [Arabic]
Fariba Nawa: He becomes emotional.
Maen Barakat: [Arabic]
Fariba Nawa: When Maen regained his composure, he shows me something.
Ertan: This is the one in the [crosstalk]
Maen Barakat: [inaudible]
Fariba Nawa: It's Halla's bracelet.
Maen Barakat: Is the blood, from Halla.
Ertan: [crosstalk]
Fariba Nawa: They gave that to you?
Maen Barakat: Yes. I took it from the hand.
Fariba Nawa: And there's still blood on it?
Ertan: Yeah.
Fariba Nawa: That's dried blood?
Maen Barakat: [inaudible]
Fariba Nawa: What does it say on the bracelet?
Ertan: The police should have taken that.
Fariba Nawa: Yeah. The police should have taken this, they did not.
Ertan: [crosstalk] it's got blood on it.
Fariba Nawa: And-
Ertan: Even the killer's blood might be on there as well.
Fariba Nawa: Oh, my God. The bracelet was on Halla's wrist at the morgue. Maen says, police, let him take it off and keep it. Why would the Turkish authorities leave behind obvious evidence like a bloody bracelet. Back when I was a crime reporter in the U.S., something like that would be sealed and kept with investigators for a long time. Then there's an issue with footprints near the bodies. Maen and other family members say police, told them they found three sets of footprints, suggesting Ahmed Barakat didn't enter the apartment alone. Deeper in the prosecutor's report, it shows the Turkish cops did collect footprint evidence, and sent it to a lab for analysis, but there's no mention of any results.
Fariba Nawa: Maen, and other family members believe Ahmed was somehow involved in the murders, but loose ends like this raise questions in their minds about the Turkish investigator's conclusion, that Ahmed acted alone. There's one thing that disturbs them more than any other, something Orouba,s sister Shaza Barakat, witnessed firsthand. [Arebic]
Shaza Barakat: [Arabic] Hallo Fariba-
Fariba Nawa: How are you?
Shaza Barakat: ... how are you?
Fariba Nawa: Shaza Barakat, lives in Idlib, Syria. It was an active war zone during the civil war. I call her with my interpreter, Asma Al-Omar, on WhatsApp. When Shaza first heard Halla and Orouba had been killed, she caught the next plane to Istanbul
Shaza Barakat: [Arabic 00:29:34]. Nightmare.
Fariba Nawa: Shaza arrived, and the funeral the very next day. In Muslim tradition, someone close to the family washes the bodies before they're buried, this was Shaw's his job. According to the Turkish autopsy report, Halla and Orouba, where each stabbed about 10 times. Shaza remembers going to see their bodies in the morgue
Shaza Barakat: So, I was praying to God just to give me the strength, when I see them in this shape, where they will be stopped.
Fariba Nawa: How many stab wounds did you see on your sister?
Shaza Barakat: Just one, on her neck.
Fariba Nawa: As if she was cut on the throat?
Shaza Barakat: Yes. Both of them.
Fariba Nawa: You saw the report and it contradicted what you saw, did you tell the police that?
Shaza Barakat: Yes, of course.
Fariba Nawa: Other documents in the prosecutor's report backup with Shaza saw. Police know that they saw cuts on their necks, calling it slaughter style. After Shaza washed the bodies, She and Maen joined a huge crowd at the funeral. The sudden violent deaths of two journalists also brought out television crews, including ABC News, who videotaped the burial. You can see hundreds of men and women gathered at the cemetery, praying. The men then carry the coffins on their shoulders. Each was draped with a red, white, and green flag of Syria. Some chant, "There's no God, but God." Over and over.
Fariba Nawa: In the corner of the video, Orouba's brother Maem, follows the coffin distraught. And behind Maen, there in the corner of the video is Ahmed Barakat, the alleged murder, stone faced. Days later, Ahmed was in police custody. We found his arrest warrant in the prosecutor's report, and something grabs my attention handwritten at the bottom of the page it says, Ahmed is suspected of committing what they call, a collective crime. In other words, at that point, the police believe there were accomplices. but reading through the report, it's clear that soon after the police arrested Ahmed, the investigation just stopped, leaving other leads and discrepancies unresolved.
Fariba Nawa: And for the Barakat family, the prosecutor's report fails to answer Perhaps the most important question, the motive? The prosecutor says the killer's motive was money, Ahmed worked for Orouba at one point, and she supposedly owed him about $500. But the family says Orouba's rubies, gold bracelets and diamond rings, were left in the apartment, untouched. The report also shows that Orouba was actually one of Ahmed's only sources of financial support in Turkey, so why would he kill her? For a long time Shaza racked her brain, "Could there be another motive?" Then she remembered something, her sister Orouba told her, before she was murdered. It was about a sensitive story, she was investigating in Syria. Did Orouba, ever tell you that she felt, or Halla felt like they were in danger?
Shaza Barakat: Deep problem.
Fariba Nawa: She begins to tell me that her sister was working on a dark story. It was about the Assad regime, abusing prisoners at a notorious prison. It's called Saydnaya, and human rights, investigators say the Assad regime, uses it to torture and kill its enemies. Shaza, says Orouba had uncovered new allegations of abuse, and was gathering documentation, and doing interviews with former prisoners.
Shaza Barakat: [Arabic] CD.
Fariba Nawa: Storing them on CDs, and notebooks.
Shaza Barakat: Notebook, [Arabic 00:33:52].
Fariba Nawa: I need to say that I couldn't get anyone else to confirm this is what Orouba was working on. There is a reference in the prosecutor's report about Orouba, asking her assistant to hide documents. They were later seized by police during the investigation, but we never saw them. We wanted to talk to Turkish authorities about this, and the rest of their investigation, but they didn't respond. Shaza though, is convinced that Orouba's work made her a target.
Shaza Barakat: It was a very dangerous to file, and documents.
Fariba Nawa: We found out that days after Orouba was murdered, someone hacked her Twitter account. Her banner photo was replaced with a picture of Assad himself, wearing sunglasses and his military uniform. Beside him, in Arabic, It reads, "Hacked with the greetings from the golden condor. Assad soldiers are everywhere."
Al Letson: Talking to people who knew Orouba and Halla, was raising more questions about the Turkish authorities conclusion, that this was a family crime. When we come back, Fariba opens up another path in the investigation, by tracking down a former Syrian intelligence officer. That's next on Reveal. From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Discovering that Orouba Barakat may have been in the middle of an investigation into prison torture, and human rights abuses by the Assad regime, cast a new shadow on the murders. If that's what Orouba was doing, and the Assad regime found out, how would they react? Reporter Fariba Nawa, tried to answer that question?
Fariba Nawa: My interpreter Asma and I, walk a tree line street toward the sea. The scent of jasmine floats in the air, It could be a fancy block in Los Angeles, but it's in the Florya neighborhood of Istanbul. The headquarters for the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime is here. I'm here to meet, Abdul Majeed Barakat. I know, another Barakat. But he's not related to Halla and Orouba, although he says he and Orouba had met. These days, Abdul Majeed works for the Syrian opposition, but years ago, he worked for the Assad regime. He has a lot of insight into how the Syrian government operates. In 2017, he was called on to testify against the regime, it was for a lawsuit brought by the family of American reporter, Marie Colvin. She died, while covering the Syrian civil war. We sit down in his office, Abdul Majeed is in tight jeans, a white shirt and blazer. He wears glasses.
Abdul Majeed: Okay. Speak in Arabic, Okay. [Arabic] Abdul Majeed Barakat-
Fariba Nawa: He crosses his legs, and lights up a cigarette. After the Syrian war broke out in 2011, he worked inside one of the Assad regimes intelligence agencies, but says he was quietly sympathetic to the rebels. As more and more paperwork about killing protesters crossed his desk, he became more than just a sympathizer. He started photographing documents and leaking them to the opposition. The leaks attracted suspicion, so he defected with secret documents, glued to his body. His brother met him in Istanbul to peel the papers off, they were really stuck. Crazy glue?
Abdul Majeed: [Arabic]
Asma: He said he felt like women feel, the pain that they feel when they taking out their hair.
Fariba Nawa: Abdul Majeed had his body hair waxed off by Assad secrets, he went public with the documents right away. They included orders written in coded language, to describe Assad's target lists,
Asma: The regime would put them into three categories, from the most dangerous, to the least dangerous. And the most dangerous were the journalist.
Fariba Nawa: Why?
Asma: Why the journalists, and media activists? Because they would make a sort of international case. They would bring those news, and they would tell the world about it. One media activist is more dangerous than a group of protesters.
Fariba Nawa: Does he know of assassinations that were planned outside of Syria?
Asma: It was through paid killers, who are independent because the regime was really trying to keep a low profile, and they're trying to not have this reputation internationally, that they're killing people outside of Syria.
Fariba Nawa: Our conversation then moves to what happened to Halla and Orouba. He tells me, he thinks Ahmed killed them, just like the Turkish prosecutors say. Okay, I'm going to challenge him a bit on this, because you say that Orouba was your friend, and she claimed that she had a new information against the regime, about Saydnaya prison. She ever talked to you about that new information?
Asma: No, I didn't have any details about that, maybe they were we're still investigating and studying it, so she did not share it with me.
Fariba Nawa: I explained all that we've learned about the case, that Shaza says the women's throats were slit, that their bodies were rolled in blankets, and covered with detergent to mask the smell. The place was not a mess. Abdul Majeed sits back in his chair, and pauses for a moment.
Asma: So, yeah. Maybe it's probably the regime, but in a very indirect way.
Fariba Nawa: He's changed his mind. This does fit the pattern of Assad political hit. Asma, and I are a bit stunned, but just then after, Majeed says he's late for an appointment and rushes off. I should point out he has no evidence of who actually killed Halla and Orouba, and there are family members who think it could have been the opposition who did it, because Orouba accused them of corruption. We reached out to them, but they wouldn't talk to us. Still, Abdul Majeed's insights, raised more questions about what really happened on the night of the murder, that remains a mystery. Except maybe to one person, Ahmed Barakat. Tthe convicted murderer.
Fariba Nawa: We learn he recanted his confession in March, 2018. I wanted to interview Ahmed, but for months, every Turkish official I asked, said it would be impossible. Then I learned, even if I can't Turkish lawyers can.
Berilel Eske: Yeah. I wanted to know what happened.
Fariba Nawa: This is [ Berile 00:41:33] a lawyer in Istanbul. She agrees to visit Ahmed Maltepe prison. This past January, we met at my house to prepare for the visit, and figure out what she'll ask him. What we want to say first is, can you tell us if you're guilty or not? Recorders, cameras and phones, are banned in the prison, so Berile takes a pen and paper for Ahmed to write down his answers. ABC news sends a film crew to follow us to the prison, we climb up and take our seats in a van with tinted windows. We drive through the winding streets of an industrial neighborhood of Istanbul, it's forbidden to park in front of the prison, so we stop a block away. All right-
Berilel Eske: Okay.
Fariba Nawa: Bye, good luck.
Berilel Eske: Bye.
Fariba Nawa: Berile walks down the hill and disappears into the concrete blocks of the prison. We drive away, so we don't raise suspicion and wait in a nearby restaurant. A couple of hours later, Berile calls, and we pick her up.
Berilel Eske: Hallo.
Fariba Nawa: Hi, welcome back.
Berilel Eske: He answered the questions.
Fariba Nawa: Yey, no.
Berilel Eske: He did, yes. He did.
Fariba Nawa: Berile, reaches into her handbag, and takes out the papers with Ahmed's answers. Pressed hard in blue pen.
Berilel Eske: [inaudible]
Fariba Nawa: [crosstalk 00:42:57]. After Berile asked Ahmed how he's holding up, she dropped the big question.
Berilel Eske: As you have been convicted of murdering Halla and Orouba Barakat, did you do it? And he just say, "I did not kill anyone."
Fariba Nawa: He says he did try to visit Halla and Orouba that night, but they weren't home, so he left. Berile follows up, If you didn't commit the murders, who did,
Berilel Eske: His answer is, I don't know anything, why am I even involved?
Fariba Nawa: Okay, he denies killing them. So why did he confess?
Berilel Eske: He's basically accusing the translator of actually telling him, "Yeah, if you do this, is the easy thing. Do the easy thing, confess, and then you're just going to have a better set. You're going to have a kind of a more[crosstalk 00:43:44]-
Fariba Nawa: Shorter sentence. You are going to have a shorter sentence? We checked this with the interpreter, he says he never manipulated Ahmed, into making a false confession. "I can't say Ahmed Barakat's denials were a surprise, but I was at least hoping he would give us a clue, If others were involved in the killing, that didn't happen."
Al Letson: The jailhouse interview with Ahmed, made things murkier. We weren't going to get any clarity from Turkish authorities, they declined to comment on the case. Back in the States, James Gordon Meek made one last push to find out if the FBI knew anything more about the murders.
James Gordon Me...: It's really hard to get anyone at the FBI to tell you what's going on inside a case, unless there's public outcry, like there was with Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. But members of Congress can request that the FBI give them a briefing, and Congressman David Price, who represents the district in North Carolina, where Halla was born, did just that. In September, he agreed to talk with me about his briefing. Our ABC News camera crew set up the shot in front of the Capitol building.
James Gordon Me...: Well, we'll try to make this as quick and painless-
Congressman Dav...: Does it look better with the coat button, or not?
James Gordon Me...: I ask about the FBI briefing. Did they give you any indication, of whether they think there was someone besides Ahmed Barakat involved, did they give you any indication of that?
Congressman Dav...: I can't say what they really think, but I can say that they did not really offer an opening, nor did the State Department people offer an opening. This was pretty much a matter of our country's relationship with Turkey, requiring that we defer to Turkish authorities in this case.
James Gordon Me...: Okay. Not much information there, but I'm surprised to hear the State Department was at the briefing. I'm reading between the lines here, but this seems more complicated than an FBI probe of a U.S. citizen murdered overseas, during a family argument.
Congressman Dav...: The diplomacy says, we don't get involved here.
James Gordon Me...: So their hands were tied?
Congressman Dav...: Well, they said their hands were tied.
James Gordon Me...: Around the time of the murders, things were pretty tense between the U.S. and Turkey. The year before there was an attempted coup against the Turkish president. He believed that the U.S. was protecting the alleged mastermind of the coup, who lives in rural Pennsylvania. Also, my reporting showed that Turkey was turning a blind eye to ISIS fighters, and arms passing through their country to Syria and Iraq. The whole U.S. Turkey relationship had fractured, and then somebody murdered an American journalist Halla.
Congressman Dav...: I don't have any evidence that the leadership in our government really pursued this seriously at all.
James Gordon Me...: You think the Trump administration dropped the ball on this?
Congressman Dav...: I think this is the administration, failing to pursue an important case, so the answer's yes.
James Gordon Me...: I started telling Congressman Price about what we learned from our own investigation. Things that could point to a hit job, like the detergent sprinkled in the Halla and Orouba's bodies to cover the smell, the conflicting DNA evidence, and the single cuts through our throats.
Congressman Dav...: There was every indication, that this was a professional or at least a practiced crime. It does not look to me like a simple $500 robbery. These were politically active individuals, Halla was a wonderful reporter, a fearless reporter, Oroua was an activist who had been in many ways in opposition to the Syrian regime, and they both had given the regime ample reason to view them as adversaries.
James Gordon Me...: And so they should be suspect number one?
Congressman Dav...: Absolutely.
James Gordon Me...: And he knows about the hack of Orouba's Twitter account, and the photo of Assad that was swapped in for her banner image.
Congressman Dav...: And a pro-Assad, that's the thing. A pro-Assad message placed on those accounts.
James Gordon Me...: Price's office wanted to know more about that hack. They asked Twitter to disclose data from both Halla and Orouba's Twitter accounts, hoping there might be a digital trail to that hacker.
Congressman Dav...: But they indicated that if this wasn't part of a formal legal proceeding, or if it wasn't-
James Gordon Me...: In other words because the FBI never opened a case, Twitter declined. No subpoena, no data. So what needs to be done?
Congressman Dav...: It's your investigation, frankly, that has taken this as far as it has gone. We need to press for an investigation of the trial circumstances, this confession that was so questionable, that requires not just FBI work on the ground. It requires authorization, it involves the state department, it involves our diplomacy and it involves some work with our supposed friends and allies in Turkey.
James Gordon Me...: Well, it turns out Congressman Price, isn't the only one pressing for a new investigation.In a statement we got, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote, "Authorities should consider Orouba Barakat's activism, and Halla Barakat's journalism, as possible motives." And the case also has caught the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Just before air, the head of the UN office that investigates assassinations and executions, told us they're questioning the Turkish government about the murders. This is the same office that investigated Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi assassination.
James Gordon Me...: As far as the FBI is concerned, however, there's nothing more to investigate. They sent us a terse statement that reads, "The FBI is confident that the Turkish legal system and their law enforcement conducted a thorough investigation." For those of us who knew Halla and Orouba, our government's failure to seek accountability in they're killings reminds me of what Halla herself said about their friend, Kayla Mueller, "Their truth died with them."
Arton Kapazla: So, This is their grave-
Fariba Nawa: Back in Istanbul, I'm with Halla's friend [Arton Kapazla 00:49:51], at a large cemetery perched on a tree-lined hillside
Arton Kapazla: On the left we have Halla, on the right we have her mother Orouba.
Fariba Nawa: And it's just a pile of rubble. Chunks of rock and dirt clods with two simple headstones. Arton carefully plants purple flowers in their plots.
Arton Kapazla: There are some days where the pain of their loss gets so intense, and I start seeing them in my dreams. And my even see myself coming to visit the grave in my dreams, and making prayers for them. And they usually don't stop until I actually come and visit, I actually have to get it out of the way in order to kind of find some kind of peace.
Fariba Nawa: He sits down on the edge of Orouba's burial plot, facing Halla's.
Arton Kapazla: You take one voice away from this world, and the entire world is silent. You take one light away from this world and the entire world becomes dark, it only takes that one person to be missing, just one person for this entire world to feel empty. And that's what it's felt like since we lost these two people,
Fariba Nawa: Arton puts his hands together, like they're an open book to make a prayer.
Arton Kapazla: [Arabic]
Fariba Nawa: He recites a verse from the Quran, then buries his face in his hands.
Al Letson: Our story was reported by Fariba Nawa in Istanbul, and ABC News' James Gordon Meek. You can watch the ABC Nightline version of the story on Hulu, or by visiting abcnews.go.com. Our lead producer for this week's show was Chris Harlan Dunaway, Taki Telonidis edited the show. Special thanks to ABCs, Pete Madden, Cindy Galley, and Reveals Aaron Glance. Thanks also to ABC's Engan Bosch, Nikita Blower, Jake Leatherman, Ashley Lusco, Matthew McGarry, Barile Eskie Asma, Al Omar and Karima Nawa, also to break down services and reveals Amy Mustafa. Our production managers is Najeeb Amini. Original score and sound designed by the dynamic duo Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man, yo Aruda.
Al Letson: You can download the music to this episode by visiting revealnews.bandcamp.com. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor and chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado Lightning. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons oundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.