Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -
A prosecutor on October 17 dismissed charges against 53 people in a corruption case that targeted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s inner circle, and resulted in the resignation of four ministers when the scandal broke in 2013.
The prosecutor argued that there were problems with collecting evidence, and the case lacked proof of criminal elements, Hurriyet Daily News reported.
The suspects included the sons of former Interior Minister Muammer Guler, former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, and the former manager of the state-run lender Halkbank, Suleyman Aslan, in whose home police found $4.5mn cash in shoe boxes. Businessmen with close ties to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were also detained when the corruption scandal erupted on December 17, 2013. All suspects were later released pending trial.
Zarrab was suspected of forming a criminal network that bribed state officials to facilitate illegal gold trading with Iran via Halkbank, in breach of international sanctions.
The ministers Guler, Caglayan, and then EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis were accused of taking bribes, and resigned from office. Ministers and lawmakers can be tried in court only if parliament decides to remove their parliamentary immunity. A special commission has been set up in the AKP-dominated parliament to investigate the corruption allegations against the ministers but this investigation continues at a snail’s pace.
Minister of Urban Planning, Erdogan Bayraktar, who was also implicated in the corruption probe, resigned in December and called on Turkey’s then Prime Minister Erdogan to step down. Bayraktar said Erdogan was fully aware of the illegal construction projects. Later, he apologised to Erdogan for his remarks.
Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister when the scandal broke, has since been elected president.
In February 2014, several audio recordings started to circulate on the internet, through the social media platforms Twitter and YouTube, purportedly showing corruption in the highest circles of the government. In one of these leaked recordings, Erdogan was allegedly discussing with his son Bilal how to get rid of vast sums of cash stashed at their home. The conversation between Erdogan and his son was supposedly recorded shortly after the corruption investigation was launched on December 17. The postings were all anonymous and the authenticity of these leaked voice recordings has not been verified. Later the government blocked access to Twitter and YouTube, prompting a backlash from the EU and the US.
Erdogan always maintained that the voice recordings were fake and had been fabricated by elements within the police and judiciary loyal to his foe US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan also claimed that the corruption probe was a conspiracy orchestrated by foreign powers and their local collaborators to topple his government. Erdogan’s strategy played well with AKP’s core constituency. His party won the March 2014 local elections and he won the presidential election in the first round in August.
The government also responded by replacing and reassigning prosecutors and thousands of police officers who took part in the investigation. In September, dozens of police officers were detained on suspicion of illegal wiretapping.
On October 12, government-backed candidates defeated Gulen-affiliated candidates in elections for the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Government-backed candidates won eight of out of 10 seats in HSYK, a body responsible for the appointment of judges and prosecutors.
Erdogan’s critics say the latest episode in the corruption scandal has shown how Erdogan is undermining the independence of the judiciary and consolidating his powers with no proper mechanism of checks and balances in place.
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