Wednesday witnessed a series of unexpected developments which led to concerns that a shady plot has been put into effect to cover up a major investigation into claims of corruption and bribery as 29 senior police officials from the İstanbul and Ankara police departments, who had been ordered by the prosecutor's office to conduct the investigation, were removed from their posts and two new prosecutors were appointed to the same investigation.
Two deputies of İstanbul Police Chief Hüseyin Çapkın, two deputy directors at the organized crime unit and two deputy directors at the financial crime unit were removed from their positions in the late afternoon on Wednesday. Early in the morning, five police chiefs at the director level were also sacked.
The identities of the sacked police were revealed as follows: Ömer Köse, department director for the terrorism unit; Tuğrul Turhal, department director for the smuggling unit; Ertan Erçıktı, department director for public peace; Mahir Çakallı, İstanbul deputy police chief in charge of combating narcotics and organized crime; Hamza Tosun, İstanbul deputy police chief in charge of the financial crimes unit; Yakup Saygılı, department director for the financial crimes unit; Yasin Topçu and Kazım Aksoy, Saygılı's two deputies; Nazmi Ardıç, department director for the organized crime unit; and Ahmet Kalender and Şenol Demirback, Ardıç's two deputies.
The order for the removal of the police chiefs reportedly came from İstanbul Police Chief Hüseyin Çapkın. The police chief declined to comment on the removals.
In Ankara, chief of the organized crime unit Osman Şamil Kaya, anti-smuggling unit chief Ertan Kaya, financial crime unit chief Adem Yalçınkaya are among 18 police chiefs who were removed from their posts.
The decision was taken after Ankara Police Chief Kadir Ay held a meeting with police commissioners. The police chiefs were removed for not informing their superiors and using their duty for “ill-intentions.”
In addition, the investigation file was reportedly taken from İstanbul Deputy Chief Public Prosecutor Zekeriya Öz, who is at the helm of the probe, and entrusted to İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor Turan Çolakkadı. The prosecutor's office did not immediately comment on the claim.
Fifty-two people, including bureaucrats, well-known businesspeople and the sons of three ministers, were detained early Tuesday as part of the investigation.
A statement from the Security General Directorate (EGM) noted that the police officials had been removed because they had “abused their power.”
Police sources said prosecutors were planning to continue their physical and technical pursuit of the suspects for a longer period of time, but they decided to move the operation to an earlier date because the suspects had started making efforts to do away with evidence of corruption and bribery.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) convened for an extraordinary meeting at the party's headquarters in Ankara. No immediate statement about the meeting was available from party officials.
The İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office issued a written statement in which it said three separate investigations were launched last year in connection with corruption and bribery claims and the investigations are ongoing. Two new prosecutors were appointed to the investigation to assist the other prosecutors, the statement read.
Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek said he made a phone call to the interior minister to learn about the removal of the police officials, but he could not reach the minister.
The removals and the appointment of new prosecutors have added to suspicions that efforts are under way to impede the investigation.
Republican People's Party (CHP) spokesman Haluk Koç called a press conference Wednesday afternoon to bring this suspicion to the media's attention. He said the government was engaged in efforts to cover up facts related to the graft claims. “The ministers [whose sons were detained] should have resigned from their posts. The fact that the ministers did not resign [and] that police officials were removed hints that the government is working to cover up the investigation,” he said.
AK Party deputy Mehmet Metiner, on the other hand, denied the government's hand in the removal of the police officials and said the removals came in response to an order by the İstanbul governor.
On Tuesday, 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 the economy ministries.
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.
Speaking to Today's Zaman, retired prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals Ahmet Gündel said the removal of the police officials has led to the perception that the government considers the corruption operation a move against itself. “As a first countermovement, the police officials have been removed from their posts. This is a worrisome situation. It is evident that someone has ignored the fact that the operation is led by the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office. Police chiefs are tasked with fulfilling the duties given to them by prosecutors involved in the investigation. It is not possible to understand why police chiefs who were fulfilling their duties have been removed,” he said.
Gündel also added that the removal of the police officials has added to suspicion that the government is planning to “interfere” with the investigation as well as with the prosecutors overseeing the investigation.
The investigation started a year ago when the National Police Department's Anti-smuggling and Organized Crime Bureau received an anonymous letter. The letter said areas designated by municipalities as "SİT" areas in İstanbul had been approved for construction by the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning. SİT areas are protected sites where construction is forbidden.
The letter also included information that high-level bureaucrats, relatives of ministers and businessmen made tremendous amounts of profit from 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, and the police then pursued and wiretapped them. Private conversations among the suspects were recorded in detail.
The investigation revealed that the suspects had reportedly benefited by bribing the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning.
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. Despite a serious threat to the Marmaray rail link, several areas were also opened for construction.
The suspects are accused of rigging state tenders, accepting and facilitating bribes for major urbanization projects, obtaining construction permits for protected areas in exchange for 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 historical artifacts that were unearthed during excavations of the Marmaray project, which connects Europe and Asia with a railway tube under the Bosporus.
Minister's suspicious visit to HSYK
The appointment of two new prosecutors to the graft investigation came shortly after rumors arose that the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) was planning to remove the prosecutors involved in the investigation. Reports suggested that Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin called an extraordinary meeting with the HSYK Tuesday evening, a move that led to questions over whether the board discussed dismissing the prosecutors who are overseeing the graft investigation. The HSYK is a top judicial body that has the authority to remove prosecutors from cases if it sees it as necessary.
Ergin spoke to the media and said the HSYK did have such a meeting with him and the board is not planning to dismiss the prosecutors “at this stage of the investigation.” The minister, however, acknowledged that he did in fact directly go to the office of the HSYK to work on some files instead of his personal office at the Ministry of Justice.
The appointment of the two new prosecutors to the graft investigation has revived memories that a similar move took place during the course of the Ergenekon investigation in 2009. Ergenekon is a clandestine criminal network accused of working to overthrow the government. New prosecutors were appointed to that investigation, sparking harsh reactions from various segments of society out of concern that it could be an attempt to downplay the historic investigation.
Umut Oran, deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP), said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should explain the removal of the police officials because he had promised several years ago that he would punish anyone involved in corruption, even if they were his father or son.
Retired public prosecutor Gültekin Avcı expressed harsh criticism for the removal of the police officials involved in the anti-corruption operation. He said evidence seized as part of the operation that suggests corruption and bribery linked to public tenders is “no longer safe.” “There are rumors that the justice minister is putting pressure on the [İstanbul] chief public prosecutor [to drop the corruption investigation]. The evidence is no longer safe. The entire world is following this investigation. Yet, they [the government] are violating the law and democracy,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, the Kanal D media outlet reported that the prosecutors who are overseeing the bribery probe will ask Parliament to lift the parliamentary immunity from prosecution for four ministers linked to corruption, bribery and forgery of documents. The outlet did not reveal the names of those ministers. In Turkey, ministers cannot be summoned as part of an investigation without their immunity being lifted.
The İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office said on Wednesday that its prosecutors have not prepared a motion to request to lift the immunity of the ministers, adding that the prosecutors will decide what to do “in light of the course of the investigation and testimonies to come from the suspects.”
Kanal D also claimed that a minister, whose name it declined to reveal, was recorded via a hidden camera receiving a bribe of $1.5 million from Iranian-Azerbaijani businessman Zarrab. Security sources said Zarrab stands accused of involvement in export fraud through the use of fake documents. Zarrab also allegedly acquired Turkish citizenship for several foreigners by bribing sons of Turkish ministers.
Police found $4.5 million at the house of Halkbank General Manager Aslan, according to the media. The money was reportedly concealed in shoe boxes. The police confiscated the money.
According to Associate Professor Mahmut Akpınar from the department of politics and international relations at Turgut Özal University, the removal of the police officials and the appointment of new prosecutors to the corruption investigation are an attempt to “interfere in a legal process that is ongoing.” Akpınar said this interference has brought into question the separation of powers in Turkey. “This is a very dangerous situation. Interference in the judiciary is tantamount to admitting to having done something wrong,” he noted.
Retired military judge Ümit Kardaş said the government should have forced the three ministers who had been detained on bribery charges to resign, but instead it opted to “defend itself” in the face of the corruption claims. Kardaş also said the removal of the police officials and a visit by the justice minister to the HSYK are not “ordinary incidents.” “A perception that this investigation will be covered up will open deep wounds in democracy."