Syrian-American journalist Halla Barakat and her mother, Syrian opposition activist Orouba Barakat, were found dead in their Istanbul apartment on September 21, 2017, the Turkish news agency DHA reported.
Their bodies were discovered after friends alerted the police when Halla Barakat, 23, did not show up for her reporting job at the Syrian opposition website Orient Net, according to The Associated Press.
Istanbul police said they found the women’s bodies on their living room floor covered in blankets with an unidentified powder poured over them, according to the DHA report. The bodies showed signs of strangulation, and both women’s throats had been cut with a large knife approximately three days before they were found, according to the news report.
Investigators were inspecting two cellphones, a computer, and hard drives confiscated from the apartment, DHA said.
DHA reported that police said nothing appeared to be missing from the women’s apartment, leading investigators to believe that burglary was an unlikely motive. The apartment door was undamaged, police said, which leading them to believe there was no forced entry.
Barakat and her mother had received threats on social media and email from supporters of the Syrian government, but never paid them much attention, a reporter who knew Halla Barakat, and who has not been named for safety reasons, told CPJ.
Istanbul’s Anti-Terrorism and Public Order police units said Orouba Barakat had received a threat via Twitter 10 days prior to her death from a user who “wrote with a Tunisian accent.” Barakat did not alert the police to the threat, DHA reported, citing the police investigative units.
On September 30, 2017, Turkish police detained a man they suspect in the Barakats’ murder, the daily Hürriyet reported. According to Hürriyet, police identified Ahmet Barakat, a distant relative to the mother and daughter, on security camera footage as someone who left the area around the Barakats’ Istanbul apartment around the time of the murder and went on to a bus station. They then found and detained Ahmet Barakat in the western province of Bursa, according to the Hürriyet report.
Separately, Halla Barakat’s aunt said on October 3, 2017, that she suspects Islamic State militants in her niece and sister’s murder, the daily Habertürk reported.
Maen Barakat told the Habertürk that Ouroba Barakat had received death threats after participating in protests relating to the ongoing conflict in Syria.
Ouroba Barakat also received threats relating to content that she frequently shared on social media sites that expressed views against both Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the Islamic State militant group, Maen Barakat told Habertürk.
Four or five months before the murder, someone claiming to be a member of the Islamic State group phoned Ouroba Barakat and made threats in Arabic with a Moroccan or Tunisian accent, Maen Barakat told Habertürk.
"My sister was threatened again on Facebook 10 days before the murder: ‘Shut your mouth, we will kill you,’ [they wrote]" Maen Barakat said, according to Habertürk.
Istanbul prosecutors on December 22, 2017, said they would seek two life sentences without parole for Ahmet Barakat, the pro-government English-language newspaper Daily Sabah reported.
Ahmet Barakat was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences by an Istanbul court on March 13, 2018, Reuters reported.
A local appeals court in Istanbul approved the life sentences on February 5, 2019, according to local reports. A review by the Supreme Court of Appeals was still pending in late 2020.
U.S. broadcaster ABC News and the Reveal podcast jointly reported in October 2020 that Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, had “received information” on the case and was in contact with the Turkish government to determine whether the investigation had met international standards. Records that Reveal obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FBI never opened a case of its own, despite assurances to the contrary from officials in the White House and State Department, the report said.