September 4, 2014

Highlights of major corruption, bribery operations of Dec. 17, 25

The investigations made public on Dec. 17 and 25 of last year revealed the biggest corruption and bribery scandal in the history of the republic, in which some members of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government as well as family members of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were allegedly implicated.

Police found a banknote counter during a raid on the home of the interior minister’s son, Barış Güler, who was detained as part of a major corruption probe.

The investigations were, however, stalled by the president and prominent figures in the government.

Since the investigations were made public in December 2013, Erdoğan has sought to discredit the prosecutors and policemen behind the investigations by accusing them of working to oust the AK Party from power. The prosecutors and policemen -- along with tens of thousands of others -- have already been displaced.

Yet, the truth about the investigations is still fresh in the mind of the public.

The investigations are known as efforts by the judiciary and the police force to fight a corruption ring made up of ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen. The amounts of money involved in the alleged activities of the corruption ring register in the ballpark of billions of dollars.

The investigations into corruption, tender-rigging, unlawful gains and bribery allegations began in March 2012. They were led by prosecutors Celal Kara and Muammar Akkaş. Both were eventually removed from the cases.

The alleged crimes -- as mentioned by the prosecutors -- include: “The transfer of lands with a value of billions of dollars at very low prices, seizure of mines from businessmen by force, tender-rigging, illegally giving state tenders worth billions of dollars to businessmen, changing the status of protected areas through bribery, opening these up to construction and making giant profits off of them.”

It all started on Dec. 17, 2013. Turkey was shaken by early morning police raids that resulted in the detention of the sons of three now-former ministers, a state bank manager, a mayor and high-profile businessmen with close ties to the government. Among the businessmen was Reza Zarrab, an Iranian living in Turkey.

Some of the suspects were arrested -- albeit briefly -- after the operation.

Zarrab was accused of managing a network used to launder at least 87 billion euros to circumvent international sanctions against Iran. In addition, he allegedly bribed ministers, their sons and public officials to keep his network working. According to prosecutors' findings, Zarrab distributed TL 139 million in bribes.

Around TL 11 million of this sum allegedly went to former Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan's son, Salih Kaan Çağlayan. The investigation details also revealed that former Interior Minister Muammer Güler received a $5 million bribe from Zarrab in exchange for granting Turkish citizenship to the Iranian businessman on exceptional grounds. Furthermore, Minister Çağlayan was accused of accepting a valuable watch worth 300,000 Swiss francs (TL 700,000) as a bribe from Zarrab.

In addition, police found $4.5 million in cash stuffed into shoeboxes and about TL 10 million also in cash in a bookshelf in now-former Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Arslan's house. Zarrab allegedly sent 500,000 euros in bribes to former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış. In addition, former Environment and Urban Planning Minister Erdoğan Bayraktar was accused of paving the way for building contractors to obtain illegal profits.

On Dec. 25, three ministers resigned from their posts while one other was removed from the Cabinet. Bayraktar publicly said that Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, should also quit, as most of the amendments to construction plans in environmentally protected zones mentioned in the corruption investigation were made on Erdoğan's orders.

Dec. 25 detentions hindered

Also on Dec. 25, the İstanbul Chief Public Prosecutor's Office ordered the detention of 30 suspects. Around $100 billion in bribes were said to be involved in the case. Among the main suspects of the investigation was Erdoğan's son, Bilal, businessmen Mehmet Cengiz and Latif Topbaş and Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi Arabian businessman who is on the US Treasury Department's “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list. The İstanbul Police Department, which saw an extensive purge of its top officers following the Dec. 17 corruption operation, did not comply with the order, however.

Shortly after the order, prosecutors involved in the Dec. 25 investigation were removed from office on the grounds that they had abused their authority. The government assigned new prosecutors to the investigation in an apparent move to drop charges against corruption suspects.

Bilal Erdoğan was accused of receiving unlawful donations at the Foundation of Youth and Education in Turkey (TÜRGEV), on whose executive board he sits. TÜRGEV is at the center of the corruption investigation, which includes serious allegations of bribery and irregularities within the foundation. Prosecutors involved in the probe 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 detailing the how certain plots of land and recreational facilities have been donated to TÜRGEV by certain municipalities.

Since Dec. 17, Erdoğan has claimed the corruption investigations were a coup attempt by influential international groups and their proxies in Turkey to topple the AK Party government. He praised Zarrab for his contribution to the country's economy and charity events.

In addition, he targeted the “parallel structure,” a clear reference to sympathizers of the faith-based Hizmet movement inspired by Turkish Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen. He said the corruption probes were orchestrated by the movement to oust the government.

He declared a “war” against Hizmet and ordered the arbitrary reassignment of bureaucrats, members of the judiciary and the police force, who he believes are followers of the Hizmet movement. The number of reassigned officials now exceeds 40,000. The fact that no internal investigation had been launched before those officials were reassigned and that most of them were not given any explanation for their reassignment has led to comments that the government -- per Erdoğan's orders -- is carrying out a witch hunt against its critics.

Erdoğan virtually confessed to carrying out a witch hunt in a public address in May. When commenting on the reassignments, he -- without providing any evidence whatsoever -- accused the reassigned officers of “betraying Turkey” for their suspected links to the faith-based Hizmet movement, which he currently views as “enemy number one.”

“If reassigning individuals who betray this country is called a witch hunt, then, yes, we will carry out a witch hunt,” Erdoğan said.

However, he has yet to give a satisfactory explanation about a number of leaked documents and voice recordings that suggest he, his family members and some government officials have engaged in unlawful activities.

In one of the recordings, Erdoğan and his son Bilal are allegedly heard talking about a plan how to get rid of huge sums of money stashed at several houses during the Dec. 17 corruption operation. Erdoğan, at the beginning of the recorded conversations, briefs Bilal about the operation and asks him to “zero” the money by distributing it among several businessmen. Towards the end of the conversations, Bilal tells his father that he and others have “finished the tasks you gave us,” implying that the whole sum was “zeroed.”

Erdoğan dismissed the authenticity of the recordings, saying they were doctored. However, official documents by the National Police Department suggest that the recordings are authentic.

In another recorded conversation, Erdoğan was allegedly heard accepting two villas from businessman Mustafa Latif Topbaş in return for easing zoning restrictions in İzmir's Urla district.

Last but not least, Erdoğan is accused of helping Yasin al-Qadi, a Saudi businessman listed as a terror financier by international organizations, enter Turkey several times even though al-Qadi had been banned by the Cabinet from entering the country.

Former İstanbul Police Department financial crimes unit head Yakup Saygılı, who was placed under arrest on Thursday after being detained for carrying out the Dec. 17 and 25 operations, said during his testimony to the police that al-Qadi entered Turkey several times thanks to Erdoğan's security guards when Erdoğan was prime minister. According to Saygılı, al-Qadi could not have entered Turkey without the help and influence of Erdoğan.

In addition, Saygılı said, al-Qadi was provided with a false passport to enter Turkey and a villa to use during his stay in the country.

Published on Today's Zaman, 04 September 2014, Thursday