Dec 13

The Crisis Boils Over: A Return to Gezi Era Protest

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The last week has been a flood of revelations, back biting and bluster. Tonight, the crisis has boiled over into anti-government protests in major cities, most notably Ankara and Istanbul. Many of the crowd are those who protested six months ago – middle class secular Turks rather than the devious Gulenist plotters or Mossad agents that Erdogan has railed against. Again, the familiar tanks, water canons and rubber bullets have returned, only this time used against people protesting in impressively arctic conditions. It was bound to happen, and yet many pundits, chastened by the broader public’s reaction to Gezi back in June, fear that the protests will only fuel Erdogan’s wild claims that the current corruption scandal is the product of malevolent forces bent on Turkey’s destruction (today he called them “spies”). During Gezi, I talked to people who believed that story sincerely, and I fear they will believe it this time round. Yet corruption charges will be harder for the government to navigate than controversy stemming from a threatened park. The scaremongering required to convince the public that they are of the same importance is impressively high octane.

Erdogan has cleverly created continuity by linking Gezi and the current protests, saying things like: “Those who tried to bring us down with the Gezi protests did not succeed; they won’t succeed this time, either.” His target voters will lap this up, rather chuffed at the thought that Turkey is great enough to engender such dramatic displays of jealousy, and emboldened by the PM’s promise that these plotters won’t succeed. Erdogan has played the part of a brave, beleaguered leader who weathered the storm six months ago, and will weather it yet again – the ultimate comic book hero, with a moustache to match. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories are so common in Turkey that many ordinary people will not be able to see the wood from the trees – whom to believe, those who talk of obscene levels of corruption, hoarded gold and dodgy tenders, or those who talk of foreign spies, plots and “dirty operations”? With so much drama to choose from, so many claims, counter-claims and vested interests, it might be hard to know whom to trust.

Let’s take a quick look at what might worry a moderately well-informed and democratically-inclined person in the PM’s recent statements:

Earlier today, speaking in the province of Sakarya, he said that “the CHP & MHP [the main and junior opposition parties] are contractors for foreign powers”.

A bold claim, but libel is the last thing on anyone’s minds these days.

Turning his attention to the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, who overturned a government decree intended to block the investigation last week, he said: “Who will judge the [Supreme Council]? Do you know who will do it? The people. I would like to judge them, if I had adequate authority.”

He also said that Turkey is entering its own civil war.

Last week in Konya, he complained that the separation of powers in Turkey was holding the government back from achieving what it wants to achieve:

“Bureaucracy blocks our path, or we face the judiciary unexpectedly.”
How refreshingly honest.

Erdogan may be forging ahead with his counter-smear campaign, replacing hundreds of police chiefs, removing prosecutors and doing his damnedest to halt the investigation, but there are cheering signs that the system in place is putting up some resistance. For example, exactly a week ago the government passed a hasty midnight decree that no investigation can proceed without police chiefs informing their superiors about it first. (If this rule had been in place two weeks ago, the now ex-Interior Minister would have been able to stop the investigation, and prevent the arrest of his own son – or at least give him a tip off.) Today, the Supreme Council ruled that this decree is illegal.

This is cheering. It is also cheering that AKP ministers and MPs, part of the “family” of which the Deputy PM boasted last week, have come out saying that the corruption is widespread and happens with the full knowledge of the PM. This is really quite inconvenient for Erdogan, as it doesn’t fit with his foreign plotters rhetoric. When he arrived at Atatürk airport today, he dealt with them as best he could, as cowardly traitors, referring to them as “those who betray us during our journey – those, we will throw out the door.”

Earlier today, my wise and worldly Turkish mother declared that Turks believe any conspiracy theory that happens to suit them and their personal interests. So, in the event that the lira continues to plunge beyond its current all-time low of 2.1531 to the dollar and affects the pockets of the ordinary Turk (we’re not talking those with Swiss bank accounts), perhaps they will tend towards the corruption theories after all, and Erdogan will be addressing only the most devout of his followers when he talks of nasty foreign plots and jealous powers. Perhaps he will call early elections, and if he does it is open to debate whether he would gain a majority. These are exciting times.

Dec 13

Statement from former prosecutor Muammer Akkaş

Springing out from the confusion of the past week has been the public statement made by Muammer Akkaş, the prosecutor taken off the corruption investigation yesterday. With remarkable honesty and clarity, he explained how newly-appointed police chiefs refused to cooperate with him, giving suspects time to destroy evidence, and how he was sacked without justification.

I copy an English translation of the statement from a Turkish daily below:

“It becomes a necessity to deliver this statement due to pressure I faced during the investigation that I led.

I have been leading an investigation into allegations of a criminal organization being formed for tender rigging, bribery, abuse of power, forgery of documents, intimidation and other crimes such as violation of Law No. 2863, that involve several well-known figures and some public servants. Yesterday morning [Wednesday 25th December], I submitted search, seizure and detention decisions by a court to the İstanbul Police Department in order to collect the pieces of evidence before they are eradicated. I noticed in media and some Internet websites names of the some of the suspects who were supposed to be detained and that the pieces of evidence were being destroyed. On the same day, I noticed that the court decision and the decision to detain the suspects were not carried out despite my meeting with police chiefs who were supposed to take part in the operation in the courthouse at 7:00 p.m.

Today, I learned that the investigation dossier, which includes search, seizure and detention decisions, was taken from my authority without any justification being offered. From now on, the responsibility is on the İstanbul chief public prosecutor and deputy chief public prosecutor. All my colleagues and the public should know that a public prosecutor prevented me from conducting the investigation.
For this reason, open pressure was put on the judiciary through the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office as well as security services who are responsible for implementing the decisions of prosecution, and the implementation of court decisions were prevented.

By not implementing the court decisions, police chiefs committed a crime. An opportunity was given to suspects to take measures, escape or mitigate the evidence. As a member of the judiciary that is expected to act as independent and neutral as one of the three basic branches of the state, we are expected to do what is necessary within the authority granted to us against crimes and those who committed a crime.

Our duty is not to ignore the violation of rights of the nation by fearing and holding back because of pressure but to realize our duty in the best way in a bid to protect the rights of our nation. In this difficult process, I expect the whole legal community, particularly senior law workers, to defend the independence of the judiciary.”

Dec 13

Corruption Plot Thickens – 19/12/13

Not since Gezi have Turks been so glued to their news screens, feverishly waiting on every tweet, every “Flash!” update. Today the sordid rumours have continued, a prime example being that one minister received a 105 million lira bribe from an Iranian gold-smuggling tycoon dogged by financial felony charges. An Istanbul mayor was allegedly bribed to allow dangerous and totally illegal construction at the source of the Marmaray tunnel, the new submarine link between the European and Asian sides of the city. Unofficial sources claim scandalous evidence for a whole host of corruption charges: taped phone conversations between ministers and family members, photos of untoward meetings and never-ending hordes of cash hidden in shoe boxes and safes.

Yet the government is impressively scornful of charges both official and unofficial. The EU minister, Egemen Bağış, has said that he is “relaxed” about allegations. The speaker of Parliament flatly denies receiving any request to lift the immunity of four top cabinet ministers supposedly linked to this corruption case, despite reports to the contrary. With magnificent unconcern for public opinion, the sacking of key figures in the investigation continues apace: in addition to the 32 police officers sacked and replaced yesterday, now the Istanbul police chief himself is gone. Meanwhile, the three cabinet ministers’ sons arrested on Tuesday have apparently been moved from uncomfortable prison cells to the new police chiefs’ personal quarters. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag has delivered a heart-warming defence of the AKP as a “big family” (which says it all) and is filing an official complaint about the “violation of confidentiality” involved in the investigation – I take this to mean the photos so far leaked to the press. Finally, the High Commission of Radio and Television has issued a terse warning to journalists not to publish mere allegations.

Anger and hilarity have characterized the public’s reactions to these developments, reminding me vividly of Gezi: today in Izmir, for example, members of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions placed shoe boxes in front of a central branch of Halk Bank, the state bank supposedly involved in illegal transactions with Iran via its General Manager, who was arrested on Tuesday. (Shoe boxes, remember, were the hiding place for millions of Turkish lira which may or may not have been seized from the the General Manager’s house.) Social media is awash with puns on the names of key figures (Fetullah) Gülen, (Interior Minister) Güler and (President) Gül. (Gülmek means to laugh and the puns run along the lines of “he who laughs last laughs loudest”). Photos of ministers on their mobile phones have been decorated with bribe-related speech bubbles – it’s as if the editorial team of Private Eye have gone to town with the very richest material imaginable.

But behind the jokes and word play, everyone is wondering how important these revelations will prove to be. Gezi seemed like a huge turning point at the time, but in reality most of the population lost interest in the months that followed and seemingly forgave any wrongdoing the government seemed to have committed. Will the same be true of this scandal? Will it be shrugged off as an unknown “dirty operation” by jealous foreign powers, as Erdogan has painted it? Will the investigation be terminally stalled by strategic dismissals and Parliamentary blocks? Everyone wants to know just how much this has tarnished the government’s reputation thus far, and how many more leaks might come out in the next few days. A corruption scandal on this scale might have the potential to be far bigger than Gezi, which was quickly dismissed as a decadent middle class strop by state-supporting media. Then again, it might not make that much impact in a country in which most European-scale money-related scandals wouldn’t even make the news.

What’s that you say? A British MP put his second home’s heating bill on government expenses? Big deal. Try 4.5 million Euros for a government tender, and then, maybe, I’ll be impressed.

There is an expression in Turkish: Çaliyor ama çalışiyor – “he steals but he works”. In other words, he’s corrupt but he does his job. My AKP-supporting tailor explained his view of the recent scandal to me today: “Yes they’re corrupt but all the others are corrupt too. These are the best of the corrupt.”

For further reading on lack of government accountability and auditing whitewash, see this excellent article in Al Monitor: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/12/akp-accountability-crisis.html#

Dec 13

AKP-Gate: Corruption Scandal Hits Turkey

The past thirty six hours in Turkey have been full of exceptionally high political drama: police have arrested 52 high profile figures closely linked to government, including the head of a state bank, the sons of three AKP ministers, an Istanbul district mayor and the eighth richest man in Turkey, on grounds of large scale corruption. Late tonight, several news channels have reported that prosecutors have asked Parliament to lift the immunity of four ministers so they can also be investigated. Throughout today interested news-followers have been treated to images of shoe boxes and safes stuffed full of cash ($4.5 million was apparently found in the bank manager’s house) and the frenzied reactions of ministers who fear similar treatment. There is an atmosphere of panic emanating from government quarters and undisguised glee from the opposition, and much of the public. In Ankara this evening, protesters gathered to denounce the recently uncovered “filth” of this corruption scandal, festooning the pavements of the parliamentary district of Kizilay with loo paper.

What’s behind the slew of arrests? In recent months, Prime Minister Erdogan has become embroiled in an ever-more apparent falling-out with the shadowy Gülen movement, a moderate Islamic network run by the former cleric Fetullah Gülen which is widely reputed to control much of the police and judiciary in Turkey. Erdogan and Gülen used to be friends; no longer. A month ago, Erdogan announced he would shut down all private dershane (study centres) in Turkey, many of which are run very profitably by Gülen. This was a characteristically rash move, and Gülen seems to have responded with impressive alacrity and force. Earlier today, the Deputy PM Bulent Arınç promised that nothing would be done to impede this investigation (the AKP has tried hard to promote a squeaky clean image throughout its decade of power); however, by the end of today, 29 police officers obliquely involved in the investigation, including the chiefs of the organized crime and financial crime units, were unceremoniously sacked. They were immediately replaced, as were two of the prosecutors in charge. According to government sources, the sacked prosecutors and police chiefs had “abused their power”.

Incidentally, today Turkey was named as having the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world for a second consecutive year by the Committee to Protect Journalists; by this evening, one prominent journalist had been fired from a pro-government newspaper for saying that Erdogan should resign. Irony has been dished out with a heavy hand and without a trace of humour today.

Everyone was waiting to hear what Erdogan had to say about all this. For most of the day, he was tantalisingly silent. Late this afternoon, he broke out with an impassioned counter-attack: he claimed that recent events are part of a “very dirty operation” cooked up by those who are jealous of Turkey’s power, and most likely related to the Gezi crooks who sought to bring down the might of Turkey with malicious rumours and double dealing. The pro-government paper Yeni Safak is even more alarmist, hinting darkly at Mossad plots and international conspiracies. This has put the whole affair on a much more interesting footing; Erdogan is effectively saying “bring it on”, and we must wait and see what tomorrow will bring from his hidden opponents.