Which one of the four ex-ministers will be tried by Turkish courts?
Last year, a week from today on Dec. 17, Istanbul prosecutors opened the biggest ever corruption probe in Turkey.
Then-Prime Minister, now President Tayyip Erdoğan, removed four ministers from the Cabinet because of their alleged involvement in bribery, including facilitating the work of an Iranian-origin businessman, Reza Zarrab (“Rıza Sarraf,” after adopting Turkish citizenship), who was involved in oil-for-gold business.
The ousted ministers were Muammer Güler (Interior), Zafer Çağlayan (Economy), Erdoğan Bayraktar (Environment and Urbanization) and Egemen Bağış (European Union Affairs).
When another wave of corruption probes hit the Cabinet on Dec. 25 - the same day that Erdoğan removed the four ministers from the Cabinet - this time accusing Erdoğan’s family members as well, he was quick to denounce it as a “coup attempt.” This time, he did not see the military behind the attempt, but rather his old ally Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Islamist scholar with sympathizers who are allegedly prominent within the government agencies, especially the police force and the judiciary. Erdoğan labeled this the “parallel structure” within the state.
Later, Parliament decided to open an investigation into the four ex-ministers, which would rule whether to vote to lift their immunity and thus be tried at court over the corruption allegations. Nobody expects much from the investigation commission’s work, as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) has a majority in it, and also as President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu insist that there is no corruption but simply a plot by the “parallels.”
However, when the head of the commission, an AK Parti MP, applied for a media ban on events at the commission, which was approved by an Ankara court - the first example of a court introducing a media ban on parliamentary activity - this was too much. A number of papers, TV stations and web sites chose to defy the ban. (The Hürriyet Daily News readers have been reading daily reports about the commission interrogating the ex-ministers.)
The answers of the ex-ministers at the commission show why the AK Parti did not want them to be heard by the public. They struggled to find excuses to cover up the accusations made against them almost a year ago. Their answers to questions from opposition deputies revealed even more than was written in the original indictments, (which were quickly dropped anyway by the same court after new judges and prosecutors were appointed following a series of legal changes by the government).
There was another interesting detail: The AK Parti head of the commission, Hakkı Köylü, tried to stop ex-minister Bayraktar from giving more details about his financial activities, but fiercely interrogated Çağlayan just like a prosecutor.
This detail appears to endorse the political rumor in Ankara that was first made public by Erdem Gül in daily Cumhuriyet. According to this rumor, the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu duo may put two of the four ministers before the court (the Constitutional Court, in this case), but launder the cases of the other two. The Cumhuriyet report was based on the “tendency within AK Parti MPs to suggest that Çağlayan and Güler might be tried on corruption allegations, while Bayraktar and Bağış could be cleared of wrongdoing.”
Bayraktar has an Islamist/conservative background and has been working with Erdoğan since the latter’s years in the Istanbul Municipality - a fellowship of at least three decades.
Both Güler and Çağlayan, on the other hand, were AK Parti recruits who joined along the way. Güler is a former high-level bureaucrat and Çağlayan is a former industrialist; both have center-right tendencies, but as they are latecomers it is not quite the same.
Egemen Bağış, meanwhile, lives a secular lifestyle. He was a small business owner in New York and a certified translator for both the White House and the Turkish Embassy before joining the AK Parti. However, he worked as Erdoğan’s personal translator for many years and was one of his closest advisors in intimate political and economic contact. To be frank, the accusations against Bağış, although they would cost a minister’s chair in any Western county, are less heavy than those against the other former ministers.
To clear all four ministers of all charges might further damage Ankara’s “anti-corruption image” in Western eyes, especially at a time when Davutoğlu is looking to rekindle relations with the EU. However, to put at least some of them to a parliamentary vote and then send them to court might save face for the government.
But the question remains: Which of them will appear before court? One? Two? Three? All of them? We’ll see.