Is the AKP shielding former ministers from corruption charges?

A Turkish parliamentary inquiry commission has decided not to put former government ministers on trial for corruption.

al-monitor Republican People's Party members of parliament Riza Turmen, Osman Koruturk, Levent Gok, Erdal Aksunger and Emre Koprulu (L-R) attend a news conference in Ankara, Jan. 5, 2015, after a parliamentary commission voted not to send four former ministers accused in a corruption investigation to the Supreme Court for trial. Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

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turkey, trial, recep tayyip erdogan, politics, justice and development party, corruption, ahmet davutoglu

Jan 6, 2015

A parliamentary inquiry commission decided on Jan. 5 not to send four former ministers from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the Supreme Council to stand trial for a corruption case involving millions of dollars.

The decision was based on the unanimous votes of the nine AKP members of the 14-member interparty commission, and flew in the face of strong evidence, which some AKP deputies have also said required that the former ministers stand trial, if only to clear their names.

The highly controversial decision is seen by the opposition — and a large number of Turks — as a political cover-up to protect President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister when the corruption scandal erupted.

With an army of journalists waiting outside the commission room, and the nation glued to television sets, the question was not so much whether the commission’s decision would favor the former ministers, but whether some of its AKP members would prefer justice over politics. Politics, however, won out as expected.

The story is not fully over yet because parliament still has to vote by the end of January on whether the former ministers should stand trial. But 53 AKP votes are needed in addition to the votes of the opposition for this to happen. Given the decision of the inquiry commission, it is unlikely that these will be forthcoming.

Former Interior Minister Muammer Guler, former Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan, former Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdogan Bayraktar and former EU Minister Egemen Bagis are accused of taking bribes and of misusing their offices by peddling influence for the sake of illegal gains worth tens of millions of dollars.

The inquiry commission was set to vote on Dec. 22 whether the former ministers should be sent to the Supreme Council — a tribunal for high officials — but was postponed to Jan. 5 by its AKP members after the accused submitted new evidence concerning the sources of their personal assets.

An official report prepared for the commission had established previously that these assets were not commensurate with the earnings of the former ministers, including income from their previous jobs. The rapporteur has been quoted in the media saying that the new evidence submitted by the former ministers did not contain anything that would alter their initial report.

Reactions by the opposition to the AKP members of the commission were fast and furious. Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), whose two commission members voted for the former ministers to stand trial, did not mince his words.

“The [former] ministers have been protected, and the will of the nation has been raped. The nine members [of the commission] have committed a crime against the law and have muddied their names.”

Osman Koruturk, a member of the commission from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), also believes the AKP members of the commission “will forever wear their decision like a millstone around their necks.”

Koruturk told Al-Monitor that the decision had nothing to do with the law or justice. “It is purely political in a case that reaches all the way up to President Erdogan,” Koruturk said.

He added that AKP deputies would most likely vote against having the former ministers tried when the vote comes up in parliament. Koruturk nevertheless believes that the stigma of corruption will remain over the AKP.

Erdogan insists that the corruption probes started on Dec. 17 and Dec. 25, 2013 — implicating the four former ministers and his own son Bilal — were part of a coup attempt against him and the AKP by supporters of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.

A massive purge was unleashed by the government following the corruption scandal against members of the alleged “parallel state” set up by Gulen in the police, the judiciary and the bureaucracy.

All of those arrested under these probes — including the sons of three of the former ministers accused, businessmen and the CEO of a state bank — were subsequently released. The chief prosecutor also quashed the corruption cases on the grounds that the evidence collected had been obtained illegally. Meanwhile, a parliamentary inquiry commission was established to decide the fate of the former ministers.

Koruturk maintained that if the vote had taken place in the commission on Dec. 22, as originally planned, the outcome could have been different. He recalled that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu had also vowed just before that vote that he would even “cut off the arm of a brother” if he was found to be corrupt.

Koruturk also recalled that parliament Speaker Cemil Cicek, a prominent member of the AKP and a former minister of justice under Erdogan, had said that if the former ministers do not stand trial “the topic will continue to be endlessly debated,” whereas if they are, it will soon be forgotten.

“What happened in the interim is that great pressure was applied on the AKP members of the commission by party executives who also gave them a text claiming this is not a corruption case but a coup attempt,” Koruturk said.

The principal argument the AKP members of the commission put forward was the decision by the chief prosecutor to quash the Dec. 17 and Dec. 25 probes.

This was a clear attempt by these AKP members to give a legalistic aspect to their decision and allay the impression that they were acting politically. The main reason for the AKP to move in this direction, however, apart from the potential for political damage in an election year, is obvious.

If the former ministers are to stand trial, this not only undermines Erdogan’s claim about a coup attempt against him and the AKP, but also puts the limelight again on his son Bilal, whom prosecutors sought to question as a suspect in the Dec. 25 corruption probe.

But as Koruturk pointed out, many believe there is more than reasonable doubt concerning the former ministers, requiring them to be sent to the Supreme Council. If this is not done, the stigma of corruption appears set to remain over Erdogan and the AKP.

Meanwhile, the controversy will become more heated if the inquiry commission activates the decision of its majority AKP members to destroy the recordings of incriminating phone conversations — obtained from wiretaps — between the former ministers and their sons.

These tapes, which also include a conversation between Erdogan and his son, will be destroyed, not because they are fabrications but on the grounds that they were recorded illegally. Yet, this will only fuel suspicions of a cover-up by the AKP.

Whether all of this will politically damage Davutoglu, however, remains an open question, given that corruption allegations have not diminished support for the AKP or Erdogan, who was elected president in August.

Murat Yetkin, editor-in-chief of Hurriyet Daily News and a prominent columnist for the daily Radikal, does not expect any immediate damage.

“Such corruption allegations do not have short-term effects if overall developments in the country are considered to be relatively good,” Yetkin told Al-Monitor. “However, this does not mean the allegations disappear. They can resurface if there is a major crisis in the economic sphere, for example, that affects the country.”

Koruturk said that the statute of limitations does not apply for another 15 years in the case of some of the allegations against the former AKP ministers. This means many sleepless nights still await them.

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