Police detained at least 52 people, including bureaucrats, well-known businesspeople and the sons of three ministers, on Tuesday as part of a major investigation into alleged bribery linked to public tenders.
Teams from the financial crimes unit of the İstanbul Police Department carried out dawn raids in İstanbul and Ankara. The sons of Interior Minister Muammer Güler, Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar were among those detained. Other detainees included the mayor of İstanbul’s Fatih district, Mustafa Demir, Turkish construction mogul Ali Ağaoğlu, Emlak Konut General Director Murat Kurum, Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Aslan, Iranian-Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab and bureaucrats from the Environment and Economy ministries.
The suspects were initially taken to an İstanbul hospital for a medical checkup and were later transferred to the İstanbul Police Department for questioning. The suspects who were taken into custody in Ankara were also sent to İstanbul for interrogation.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declined to speak to the media about the operation, saying a legal process was already under way.
İstanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu said the operation was launched in the early hours of the morning and that it was still continuing. He said it is not proper to make statements about a legal process that is ongoing.
The operation consists of three separate investigations, according to news sources. One investigation involves Ağaoğlu and other businessmen, while the second investigation involves the sons of the three ministers. The third investigation involves Halkbank.
The investigation into the sons of the ministers is being carried out by İstanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Zekeriya Öz. Öz is better known as the prosecutor who launched the investigations into Ergenekon, a clandestine criminal network accused of working to overthrow the government. Öz is assisted by prosecutor Celal Kara.
İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor Turan Çolakkadı said the operation is being conducted by their “own prosecutors” and that the deputy chief prosecutor is supervising the raids.
The investigation, known as an operation against bribery and corruption, started a year ago when the National Police Department’s Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau received a tip. The letter said areas designated by municipalities as SİT (protected) areas in İstanbul had been opened for construction after the Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning exercised its authority.
The tip also included information that high-level bureaucrats, relatives of ministers and businessmen made tremendous amounts of profit in these development schemes. The bureau then forwarded the letter to the İstanbul Police Department’s financial crimes unit for investigation. The İstanbul police then sought permission from prosecutors for technical and physical pursuit of suspects. Police then pursued and wiretapped the suspects. Private conversations among the suspects were recorded in detail. The information they acquired was constantly shared with prosecutors supervising the investigation.
The investigation revealed that the group benefited by illegally using the authority of the Ministry of the Environment and Urban Planning through bribes and used Minister Bayraktar’s son. Thanks to the graft, land designated as protected areas in İstanbul that had not been authorized for construction by local İstanbul municipalities were opened to construction.
In addition, the group also used the authority of the ministry to open SİT areas for construction within the boundaries of the Fatih Municipality in İstanbul. SİT areas are protected sites where construction is forbidden. Despite a serious threat to the Marmaray rail link, several areas were also opened to construction.
The suspects are accused of rigging state tenders, accepting and facilitating bribes for some major urbanization projects, obtaining construction permits for protected areas in exchange of money, helping foreigners to obtain Turkish citizenship through falsified documents, involvement in export fraud, forgery of documents and gold smuggling. There are also claims that the suspects illegally sold historic artifacts that were unearthed during excavations of the Marmaray project, which connects Europe and Asia with a railway tube under the Bosporus.
Ministers Güler and Çağlayan cancelled their programs for Tuesday. The two ministers did not immediately speak to the media about the detention of their sons. Güler reportedly said he had ordered the investigation and that “what is necessary will be done” even if his son is involved.
İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş said he had no detailed knowledge about the operation or detentions and that he was following the developments from the media.
Halkbank-Iran ties under spotlight
Police teams also searched the headquarters of state-run lender Halkbank in Ankara.
Halkbank shares fell as much as 5 percent after reports of the police search emerged. Officials from the bank could not immediately be reached for comment.
Halkbank has been criticized by Western officials for engaging in oil-for-gold exchanges with Iran. It is suspected that some several tons of gold may have been traded with Iran for oil. According to Turkish media reports last year, Turkey exchanged nearly 60 tons of gold for several million tons of Iranian crude oil, despite its promises to observe Western sanctions on Iran’s energy sector. By using gold instead of money, Turkey is able to skirt Western sanctions on Iran’s oil trade, particularly those pertaining to SWIFT, the global money transfer service that until recently assisted the Central Bank of Iran and other Iranian financial institutions.
Turkish officials, however, denied the charges that the government trades gold for oil.
The developments, and fears of a deepening political row, weighed on Turkish markets. The main stock index was down 2 percent at 73,350 points, well below a 0.19 percent rise in the wider emerging markets index.
Police also searched the headquarters of the Ağaoglu Group of construction magnate Ağaoglu, its chief executive Hasan Rahvalı told the media. “We are talking about a large-scale investigation here. It is not focused on Ali Ağaoğlu,” Rahvalı stated. “This investigation is related to claims of bribery against some public officials. They searched the company in the early hours of this morning but could not find any criminal evidence.”
Rahvalı also said Ağaoğlu had been asked by the police to come and make a statement as part of the investigation.
In addition, businessman Zarrab was reportedly staying at his waterside residence in İstanbul’s Kanlıca neighborhood when police officers detained him. Media reports said the police seized a large number of documents from Zarrab’s residence and took them to a police station for examination.
According to the media, police tightened up their technical surveillance of Zarrab after 27 kilograms of gold were seized at Atatürk Airport in İstanbul earlier this year. The gold reportedly belonged to Zarrab, who owns jewelry stores in Iran and who is allegedly exporting Turkish gold to that country.
Security sources said Zarrab stands accused of involvement in export fraud through fake documents. Zarrab also allegedly acquired Turkish citizenship for several foreigners by bribing sons of Turkish ministers.
Iran’s role in the increased gold exports of Turkey has been discussed earlier. The mass purchase of Turkey’s gold is being undertaken by rich Iranian families living in Turkey. There are rumors that these families purchase Turkish gold via third persons in order to escape attention and that they entrust the purchased gold to the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran (CBI), again via third persons. The CBI supports the purchases in order to gain strength in the face of increasing sanctions from European countries.
Prosecutors to ask Parliament to lift immunity of four ministers in corruption probe
İstanbul prosecutors who are overseeing a major probe into alleged bribery linked to public tenders will ask the Turkish Parliament to lift the immunity of four ministers linked to corruption, bribery and the forgery of documents, a Turkish media outlet reported on Tuesday.
Kanal D said İstanbul Prosecutor Celal Kara will send an official request to Parliament to lift the immunity of the four ministers in order to lay out the legal basis of the investigation given the fact that the ministers cannot be summoned as part of the probe without the lifting of their immunity.
İstanbul Prosecutors Zekeriya Öz and Celal Kara extended the scope of the investigation and are considering including the ministers into the probe following strong suspicion of their involvement.
The sons of three of the ministers are currently among the detainees in the investigation into alleged bribery linked to public tenders.