March 19, 2015

Confidence lost

İbrahim Türkmen

It was first claimed by famous whistleblower fuatavni on his Twitter account, and then the rumor spread.

The Finance Ministry's Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) is said to have been preparing a “fake report” concerning the financial situations of the shareholders and all board members of Bank Asya since 2006 to lay the groundwork for the confiscation of the bank.

I called Süleyman Taşbaş, the lawyer representing the shareholders of the embattled bank, to verify whether the buzz had any truth to it, and his answer was affirmative. He said they had submitted a petition to MASAK so the board might deny such stories, but have not heard back. Additionally, their attempts to use the media to call on MASAK to clear up these rumors were not heeded either.

It has been claimed by many pundits and the bank's owners that ever since the government declared a dirty war on the Hizmet movement -- following the breaking in December 2013 of a series of corruption investigations implicating members of the government -- the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency's (BDDK) primary aim has been to seize Turkey's largest Islamic bank by invoking Article 71 of the Banking Law.

Taşbaş confirms this, recalling that the BDDK commissioned 13 teams of investigators to go over the bank's records with a fine-tooth comb to find an irregularity that would legitimize the confiscation. They all returned empty handed.

And then, all of a sudden, the BDDK came up with the idea to arbitrarily ask the Bank Asya shareholders, all of them, to provide documents that are normally required when a bank is first established. On top of that, it gave them only a short time to prepare them -- certainly not enough given the weight of the red tape involved, especially considering the crush in public buildings due to year-end operations.

There was no time limit in the law for the preparation of these documents, but the BDDK set a deadline on short notice. It rejected shareholders' demands for extensions of one month. When the final day arrived, it didn't hesitate to authorize the Savings Deposits Insurance Fund (TMSF) to launch a raid on the bank with a police detachment, hastily dismissing the board of managers and appointing a new nine-man team to steer the bank.

Taşbaş said this new board is null and void and will be held responsible for every action, every signature and every decision. It is occupation, he said.

Over 200 lawsuits have been filed against BDDK and TMSF officials, and more are yet to come. Taşbaş said the bank's shareholders met with these managers to warn them of the consequences -- only to learn that these very managers were also not happy to be there and were worried about lawsuits. And now, MASAK is being dragged into hot water.

Anyone who committed these unlawful and arbitrary actions will surely pay dearly for doing so. Maybe not today, but the day will come when law once again prevails in this country. But I am afraid the country will also have to pay the cost for it.

Turkey was ordered by the European Court of Human Rights to pay $4.1 billion in damages to the previous owners of Kentbank for similar irregularities when it took over the bank in 2001. Bank Asya is 10 times larger than Kentbank, and hence compensation for the losses of Bank Asya's shareholders assumedly will be a lot larger.

Indeed, 88 percent of the documents requested from the shareholders have already been completed, and the TMSF has no legal right to continue this lawlessness. It must clear off immediately, or else its sins will grow larger every single moment it continues its occupation.

The repercussions of this unlawful seizure are seen in the sector in terms of a loss in confidence. I know it would be wrong to attribute this solely to the Bank Asya operation, but it certainly had an impact on the decisions of Citibank, HSBC and RBS to pack up and leave Turkey.

All banks in Turkey have thousands of shareholders, and some have even several hundreds of thousands of partners. Besides, foreigners have shares in all of them. If one day a member of the government or a resident of the presidential palace decides that he no longer likes a certain bank and chooses to do the same as was done to Bank Asya, who will save them?

S&P was referring to precisely this risk in a report last week. It said the Bank Asya incident marked the rise of the potential threat of political influence on the country's banking sector.

The global economy is in a messy state, where central banks are taking wary steps to shore up confidence while their governments try to walk in lockstep with them to make sure that no extra jitters bother their people and investors. And we are fooling around with trifling issues in the meantime.

Published on Today's Zaman, 19 March 2015, Thursday