June 15, 2014

Erdoğan's witch hunt turns key state institutions upside down

Since a sweeping graft scandal broke on Dec. 17, ongoing purges in state and semi-autonomous institutions have reached a level where these bodies face a serious risk of being unable to function properly, as indicated by a recent controversial report in which the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) said that leaked voiced recordings implicating government officials in corruption were fabricated.

In recent speeches, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has defended the purges of public officials while even going so far as to threaten a government “witch hunt" against the members of the Hizmet movement inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen.

As part of the massive purge, after relations between Erdoğan and Turkey's Central Bank Governor Erdem Başçı became strained, several mid-tier managers at the central bank were removed, including two general managers and Başçı's private secretary, late on Wednesday.

Reuters reported this week that neither government officials nor the central bank has so far made a statement about the removals. The institution, like many others, has been under pressure from Erdoğan and the government on policy issues and it is feared that the latest move will damage the central bank's credibility.

In his earlier speeches, Erdoğan criticized Başçı for not lowering interest rates as much as the government desired. However, the dismissed officials have no direct involvement in monetary policy decisions.

Before the removals at the central bank, TÜBİTAK became a target of the government's purge.

Former TÜBİTAK Vice President Hasan Palaz has said last week that over 250 engineers and scientists have been dismissed from the institution over the past two months. Palaz, who is also the former head of the TÜBİTAK-affiliated Research Center for Advanced Technologies on Informatics and Information Security (BİLGEM), was fired on Feb. 21 for not obeying an order from “influential figures” to change a report in an investigation into a bugging device found inside the Prime Ministry.

Palaz also said after his dismissal, nearly 90 managers and 30 experienced and high-ranking officials were also dismissed from TÜBİTAK, adding that hundreds of personnel were reassigned to lower posts within the institution while many employees faced pressure and discrimination.

The qualifications of the new appointees at the institution are also in doubt as the government appointed Ankara Zoo Director Mustafa Sancar as deputy president of TÜBİTAK's Turkish Academic Network and Information Center (ULAKBİM), sparking a debate over whether such an unqualified person is appropriate for the post.

Speaking to Today's Zaman, Mustafa Yaşar Demircioğlu, a scholar on administrative law from Ipek University's faculty of political sciences, said the purges of public officials at TÜBİTAK are being conducted on the grounds that these personnel are classified as “workers” instead of “public officials.”

“This is a part of a comprehensive strategy rather than a random implementation. These people are classified as workers so as to not allow them to file a lawsuit with administrative courts. If they go to court, the courts may reinstate them to their former positions. But if they are considered employees, they can be fired easily after they are compensated. Even if they are reinstated to their posts, TÜBİTAK has no legal obligation to rehire them,” Demircioğlu said.

Stressing that dismissing personnel who are considered public officials by defining them as employees via a regulation is also against the Constitution, Demircioğlu said: “TÜBİTAK is an institution which has to look after the public's interest and these key services, due to their sensitivities, should be carried out by public officials, according to the law. Thus, it is not possible to classify the personnel in TÜBİTAK as workers.”

After the purges in TÜBİTAK, the institution issued a report on a voice recording allegedly between Erdoğan and his son Bilal suggesting that the two were attempting to hide unknown amounts of cash in their family home, saying the recording was fabricated.

However, experts like sound engineer Erdem Helvacıoğlu said the report was far from scientific and is instead politically motivated, adding that a voice recording that contains such strong content in terms of meaning and emotion cannot be simply produced.

“The continuity of the voice also nullifies claims that these recordings were a montage. Even creating a meaningful sentence by combining syllables could take days, and the result would be unsatisfactory. In my opinion, the report will be used for propaganda purposes ahead of the presidential election [on Aug. 10].”

Large-scale, sweeping purges that started in the police force and moved on to the judiciary after a major corruption scandal became public on Dec. 17 of last year have continued with other institutions. According to a report published in the local Demokrat Gebze newspaper last week, a purge is also under way at TÜBİTAK's Marmara Research Center (MAM).

The report claimed that large-scale profiling activities have been launched against personnel who possibly have links to a “parallel state” -- a term used by pro-government circles to define the faith-based Hizmet movement -- upon orders from Science, Industry and Technology Minister Fikri Işık. Those being profiled by the center are being systematically dismissed.

SPK, MASAK and ATK are also on target

However, TÜBİTAK and the CB are not the only institutions that have been systematically targeted by the government and Erdoğan through a witch hunt. Staff at the Council of Forensic Medicine (ATK) was also reshuffled after the Dec. 17 graft probe as many officials from the ATK were removed from their posts.

According to reports, certain departments within the institution were subjected to staff removals amid talk of retrials of critical legal cases such as Ergenekon.

While three forensic medicine experts in the forensics department were reassigned to other departments, four experts were brought in from other departments. The forensics department, which analyzes evidence such as voice recordings, weapons, bullets, fingerprints and handwriting, may be asked to reanalyze critical evidence in the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer cases; the government has hinted at retrials of these legal cases in which coup plotters were convicted for the first time in the history of the nation.

According to sources, the recent reshuffling of 20 people within the institution was done to conceal critical changes in the forensics department.

Head of the Finance Ministry's Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) Mürsel Ali Kaplan was recently removed from his post as part of a purge in the Finance Ministry and Revenue Administration General Director Mehmet Kılcı and Budget and Fiscal Control General Director İlhan Hatipoğlu were reassigned.

Kaplan came to public attention in a investigation launched against Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, who is a key suspect in a major corruption and bribery investigation that has implicated several top government figures and bureaucrats. Zarrab was detained in December last year as part of the investigation into corruption and bribery claims and is accused of involvement in export fraud using falsified documents and of securing Turkish citizenship for foreigners by bribing the sons of Turkish ministers.

Administrators from the Capital Markets Board (SPK), Turkey's primary financial regulatory agency, were also recently removed from their jobs after being told there were no legal charges or investigations against them.

Fourteen SPK employees were removed from duty with replacements being appointed immediately, according to a statement released by the SPK in April.

Three deputy chairmen and 11 department heads were removed from duty due to “management necessity.”

Speaking to Sunday's Zaman about the recent reshuffles in such institutions, political scientist Muhammed Kösecik from Turgut Özal University said that since these bodies are carrying out crucial state services, recent purges have the potential to negatively affect the delivery of services.

“These removals indicate that the process is being conducted against the Hizmet movement, but the outcome might be hazardous for Turkey because these institutions become more vulnerable,” Kösecik said.

Citing the recent report by TÜBİTAK on the voice recordings, Kösecik said that after such massive purges these institutions are being shaped in line with the government's views and are losing their autonomous privileges, adding, “Harming the functioning of these institutions is against the law, as well as democracy."

“Political authority gives priority to the subjective values in assignments to these institutions such as politically closeness to the government, instead of focusing on the qualifications of personnel. Values such as neutrality, performance and service as defined by the law might be easily violated and people may seek to develop better ties with political authority to look after personal interests such as promotions. Ineffectiveness is another risk that the recent reassignments may create in these institutions,” Kösecik said.

Published on Today's Zaman, 14 June 2014, Saturday