Graft probes could become strategic issue for Turkey

Graft probes could become strategic issue for Turkey

Before taking off for Iran on Jan. 28 evening, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan said the government would put an end to the Specially Authorized Courts (ÖYM) system as soon as possible.

This system was injected into the Turkish judiciary by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government following the 2004 abolition of the State Security Courts (DGM), which had been seen as the symbol of military tutelage in Turkey, within the framework of European Union harmonization reforms. 

Erdoğan had been ignoring and snubbing criticisms by opposition parties, as he enjoyed the outcomes of the system in controversial probes and court cases in which scores of people were put in jail, either for getting involved in coup attempts against the government or supporting Kurdish separatism.
The man on the street then observed the fact that some key prosecutors (and police officers helping them) and judges in those cases were allegedly sympathizers of Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-resident moderate Islamist scholar who used to be one of Erdoğan’s closest allies. That alliance started to crack when an Istanbul ÖYM arrested Erdoğan’s former Chief of Staff, İlker Başbuğ, and later sentenced him to life for leading a “terrorist organization” to topple the government. A month later, in February 2012, the same prosecutors attempted to interrogate National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan, for possible involvement in Kurdish-focused terrorism activities. 

The crack grew with the graft probe that started on Dec. 17, 2013. Losing four of his Cabinet ministers, a government bank manager and further devaluation of the Turkish Lira, Erdoğan thought this was not simply a corruption probe, but a “coup attempt,” now by Gülenists, as “agents” of unnamed “foreign forces.”

The purge he started within the police, and a legal change in order to secure more political control over judges and prosecutors, caused a reaction from not only within Turkey but from the U.S. and the EU, on the basis of transparency, judicial independence and the state of law generally.

Erdoğan had to partially freeze the draft law following a visit to Brussels last week, where he met top EU officials, and after a number of statements by the U.S. underlining the same principles and media freedom.

A New York Times article on Jan. 27, interestingly signed by its editorial board, highlighted a strong NATO dimension to the whole debate. With accusations including “authoritarianism” and “ruthlessness” in crushing dissents, the NYT article claimed that Erdoğan might pose a “danger” for Turkey and its NATO allies. Moreover, referring to the Western defense alliance three times in a rather short 15-sentence article, the NYT board claimed that Erdoğan, if he failed to endorse the rule of law, would contradict NATO “ground rules,” and regional stability could become critical for NATO, its allies and the Turkish people.

Without ruling out the possibility of a political motivation behind the graft probe, the NYT says even under those circumstances, Erdoğan should stick with transparency and let the courts do their work, instead of “derailing” it.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), came up with new corruption claims in Parliament on Jan. 28, and asked questions about a huge money transfer to a government bank account of an NGO in which the PM’s son Bilal Erdoğan is involved. No answer or no prosecutor probe has been reported yet.

The partial freeze of the control over judiciary law and announcement to abolish the Special Courts could possibly be regarded as steps to endorse independent judiciary. But yesterday, two of the remaining prosecutors who opened the Dec. 17 graft probe were also removed from their posts, as another example showing that it is almost impossible for a prosecutor or a police officer to take part in a corruption probe and keep his chair since Dec. 17.

Further insistence on having political control over the judiciary and trying to block corruption probes could drag Turkey away from Western democratic values, and could become a strategic problem for the country and its people.