December 18, 2013 3:16 pm

Turkey transfers 32 police chiefs in high-profile corruption case

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A high-profile corruption and smuggling case against people close to Turkey’s government was disrupted on Wednesday when the interior ministry transferred 32 senior police offers and two new prosecutors were picked for the investigation.

The moves came as the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, sought to respond to an investigation that began on Tuesday when more than 52 people were taken for questioning, including three sons of cabinet ministers, the head of Halkbank, a state-controlled bank, and other figures connected to the government. By Wednesday evening only one person had been released.

The case has raised fears of political instability within Turkey, with the lira falling to a low of TL2.82 against the euro on Wednesday.

In a press conference, Bulent Arinc, deputy prime minister, said claims had been made against four ministers in the context of the investigation, which he suggested was part of a plot against the government.

“We believe that the ministers are innocent but that does not mean we will protect them if they have any involvement.”

Mr Erdogan himself denounced what he called a “very, very dirty operation” launched by people inside and outside the country. Referring to the mass protests against his rule in the summer, he said: “They couldn’t achieve what they wanted in Gezi, now this is a new attempt . . . It is an effort to become a state within the state.”

Other members of Turkey’s ruling AKP party have been quick to denounce the investigation as a political move by the movement of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, which critics say has infiltrated Turkey’s police and prosecution service.

Mr Erdogan steered clear of criticising the Gulenists by name, simply commenting that it was known who was plotting against Turkey.

Members of the Gulenist movement, a former ally of the AKP with which Mr Erdogan is now feuding, deny claims of infiltration, and argue the case is merely intended to expose corruption in high places. “The politicians are trying to influence the courts and cover up the issue, that is why the police chiefs are replaced and these prosecutors are appointed,” said Idris Bal, a Turkish MP sympathetic to the Gulenists who recently resigned from the AKP.

As opposition figures described the latest move as a “coup against the rule of law”, Mehmet Simsek, Turkey’s finance minister expressed concerns of his own.

“If the act of dismissing the police chiefs aims to cause any obstruction in the process of the operation which needs to be carried out in a healthy way, then I have to admit that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” he said. “I currently don’t know what is behind this dismissal.” He added that the issue was now in the hands of the judiciary and that it was not appropriate for him to comment further.

In its first formal statement on the case, the Istanbul chief prosecutor’s office said the probe, made up of three separate investigations, began between September 2012 and February this year.

It said that two additional prosecutors had been taken on to help with the workload; Mr Arinc added that the police officers had been transferred because of irregularities.

Prosecutors have been removed in at least one previous high-profile case: in 2011 they were taken off a case examining an alleged charity fraud and later investigated themselves.

A wide range of Turkish newspapers also reported that $4.5m was discovered in shoeboxes at the home of Suleyman Aslan, the chief executive of Halkbank, which is Turkey’s main financial intermediary with Iran.

The claim, which cited “judicial sources”, could not immediately be independently verified. Halkbank declined to comment on the Turkish reports. Mr Aslan was still being held for police questioning as of Wednesday afternoon.

Similarly, the Turkish press showed pictures it said were of piles of euros, dollars and Turkish lira recovered from the house of Baris Guler, son of Turkey’s interior minister.

Mr Arinc suggested that such photos could have been staged. Dani Rodrik, a Harvard academic whose father-in-law has been imprisoned as part of a previous investigation into alleged coup-plotters, added: “Having observed other investigations such as Ergenekon and Sledgehammer up close, I do not believe any of the specific incriminating material the police are leaking.”

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