July 20, 2014

Gov't using TÜRGEV to form religious community alternative to Hizmet

The Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), on whose executive board Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son Bilal sits and which was involved in a corruption scandal that became public on Dec. 17, is going to be used as a means to create an alternative religious community to the faith-based Hizmet movement, some politicians and analysts have argued.

Main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Ankara deputy İzzet Çetin told Sunday's Zaman that the amendment to Municipal Law No. 5393 that was recently approved by the Planning and Budget Commission in Parliament is aimed at smoothing the way for municipalities across Turkey to make large donations to TÜRGEV and added: “Many plots of land and other immovable property will be transferred to TÜRGEV for free if this omnibus bill is passed in Parliament. I wonder how the government could be so unconcerned about proposing such an amendment to the municipal law.”

If the amendment is passed by Parliament, it will allow municipalities to easily donate plots of land and facilities to any foundation or association they wish, either for free or at a very low cost, by amending Municipal Law.

Regarding the government's intention to create a new community as an alternative to the Hizmet movement with TÜRGEV, Çetin said, “The Justice and Development Party [AK Party] government is pushing its former companions off a cliff [in reference to the members of the Hizmet movement] attempting to replace it with one formed by the ruling party.

When the graft allegations first surfaced on Dec. 17 of last year, the government and its media did everything to undermine the reputation of Hizmet movement. Even AK Party deputies who resigned because of increasingly anti-democratic practices were turned into targets to be attacked. The power-intoxicated government's psychological operation to finish off the Hizmet movement is still continuing, as Erdoğan has pledged to eliminate the movement.

“The amendment to the law aims to wipe away the smear of corruption that has stained the reputation of the government. There have been huge donations to TÜRGEV totaling $99 million. They are attempting to legitimize this with the change in the law. If the amendment is approved its current form, valuable, important, state-owned lands in İstanbul districts such as Sarıyer, Kilyos and Liva may be handed over to TÜRGEV.”

In April, CHP Deputy Chairman Sezgin Tanrıkulu submitted a parliamentary question that asked Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç whether a $99.99 million donation was made to TÜRGEV by a company affiliated with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Later that month, Arınç said TÜRGEV had received a donation of almost $100 million from abroad, but he declined to reveal the source of the funds.

Ulterior motives

Mümtazer Türköne, a political scientist at Fatih University, told Sunday's Zaman that the AK Party government is trying to create its own religious community, aiming to monopolize religious activities among the people.

“The AK Party government is attempting to align the society with its ideology and political Islam through imposing the government's ideology on the students of imam-hatip high schools, which provide religious education, [pushing students to attend these schools]. Dormitories and hostels are being built for students as part of this effort. Since 2011, TÜRGEV has been the main catalyst of this new religious community project as an alternative to the faith-based Hizmet movement,” Türköne said.

According to Türköne, the government's intention was not only to create a newly defined community but also to legitimize the illegitimate funds and unearned income that members of the government have obtained from state-sponsored activities.

Stating that TÜRGEV is the “black box” of government-initiated wrongdoing, Türköne went on to say, “TÜRGEV now serves as a mechanism to portray all kinds of negatively motivated government activities as legitimate.”

The foundation's executive board consists of those among Erdoğan's inner circle, such as businessman Ahmet Ergün; the prime minister's daughter Esra Albayrak; his son-in-law's brother Serhat Albayrak, who is the chairman of the board of the Turkuvaz Media Group; the prime minister's brother-in-law Ziya İlgen; AK Party İstanbul deputies Bülent Turan, Doğan Kubat and Mustafa Ataş; AK Party Ümraniye District Mayor Hasan Can; AK Party Başakşehir District Mayor Mevlüt Uysal; and AK Party Fatih district deputy Mustafa Demir.

Another point that Türköne drew attention to was the lack of a proper inspection mechanism to monitor TÜRGEV's activities, such as the donation of money and plots of land, adding: “Only the government itself has the authority to conduct an inspection of those foundations, along with the State Audit Institution [DDK], at the request of President Abdullah Gül. In this case, the thief and the judge are the same person. After the government loses power [in the next elections], a proper investigation may be launched into TÜRGEV.”

Mehmet Altan, a well-known Turkish academic, also stated that TÜRGEV is being used as means to set up a new religious community as an alternative to the Hizmet movement by benefiting from the state funds.

Regarding the omnibus bill recently approved in the parliamentary Commission, which will make it easier for municipalities to make more donations to TÜRGEV, Altan pointed out that making such sweeping donations to TÜRGEV is a criminal act.

“The community being designed is not what foundations are generally based on -- the voluntary participation of people -- but an artificial one based on reciprocal relations. Money laundering is being conducted through the organization; this is banned by the international economic system. The government cannot make an amendment regarding the use of public property, which consists of taxpayer money, for the benefit of government-connected organizations,” Altan noted.

The foundation has also benefitted from large tax exemptions which were passed on Sept. 26, 2011 in a Cabinet decision.

Allegations of corruption

TÜRGEV is one of the parties at the center of the Dec. 17, 2013 corruption investigation, which includes serious allegations of bribery and irregularities within the foundation. Prosecutors claimed that Bilal Erdoğan abused his father's influence to help TÜRGEV purchase valuable land in several provinces at prices far below market value. Various news reports have emerged over the past few months noting the donation of plots of land and recreational facilities to TÜRGEV by some municipalities.

CHP Deputy Chairman Aytun Çıray, regarding government-led privileges and donations by both the private sector and state institutions to TÜRGEV, called on prosecutors to launch an investigation into TÜRGEV's activities, especially the transfer of money.

“Prosecutors should file a criminal case against the foundation. The government officials [who were implicated in the corruption investigation] are conducting an operation to acquit themselves. TÜRGEV is being used as a base from which to launder money. Not long ago, the foundation was included in a list of private foundations which are paving the way for more donations to it. It is also used for influence peddling, creating inequality and unfairness,” Çıray told Sunday's Zaman.

According to CHP İstanbul deputy Kadir Gökmen Öğüt, the Ministry of Finance owns a plot of 120,000 square meters in the Tuzla district of İstanbul, and there are rumors that some 57,000 square meters of that land was recently allocated to TÜRGEV. In his question to Parliament, Öğüt asked about the veracity of the rumors; if they were true, the deputy asked the prime minister to explain under what conditions the land was allocated to the foundation.

The rumors follow earlier claims raised by a Turkish media outlet that the Ümraniye Municipality in İstanbul illegally donated public recreational facilities to TÜRGEV. The facilities had been opened by the municipality for the benefit of Ümraniye residents; however, the municipality donated the buildings to the foundation without notifying the proper authorities, according to the report. The report said the foundation then converted the buildings into a private kindergarten.

In addition, earlier this month, rumors surfaced in the media that Erdoğan had asked Ali Ağaoğlu, the chairman of a leading Turkish construction company, to donate 20 acres of land to the foundation in return for helping to resolve a legal dispute over public land that Ağaoğlu's company wanted.

CHP Deputy Chairman Tanrıkulu submitted a parliamentary question to Environment and Urban Planning Minister İdris Güllüce about the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality's recent decision to stop the construction of an educational complex, Fatih College, on privately owned land in Gaziosmanpaşa on the pretext that the land will be used as a “green area" and later on be handed over to TÜRGEV.

Published on Today's Zaman, 19 July 2014, Saturday