ISTANBUL — It began on a Tuesday morning, Dec. 17, when the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office opened what came to be called the "Corruption and Bribery Operation". Virtually every passing day since has shaken Turkey with new developments: Police officers have been removed from their posts, government cabinet members resigned, prosecutors made public statements against each other, some members of the leading Justice and Development Party (AKP) quit, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed a foreign plot against him, a police officer was found dead, and more. Here is how events have unfolded:
The crackdown began early in the morning. The first hint journalists got was that well-known figures were about to be detained. Their names were revealed soon after, and included Baris Guler (son of then-Interior Minister Muammer Guler), Abdullah Oguz Bayraktar (son of Environment and Urban Affairs Minister Erdogan Bayraktar), state-owned Halkbank’s General Manager Süleyman Arslan, Istanbul’s Fatih District Mayor Mustafa Demir and well-known businessmen Ali Agaoglu and Reza Zarrab — among others. Three different operations took place simultaneously and the investigation was being run by Zekeriya Öz, famous for the Ergenekon trials that landed dozens of generals, politicians and journalists in jail for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the Erdogan government.
Serious accusations were leaked to the press. Businessman Reza Sarraf was accused of bribery, money laundering and gold smuggling because of his relationships with four cabinet members. It was claimed that the Environment and Urban Affairs minister was receiving a cut of 0.3%-0.4% from the money transfers, and that any troubles Sarraf faced within Turkey's bureaucracy were allegedly handled by the interior minister. It was also claimed that Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bagis was receiving bribes from Sarraf in return for keeping an eye on his dealings. Turkey’s gold dealings with Iran in return of crude oil and natural gas were being discussed in scope of the operation. The biggest item on the agenda was the money counting machine, many steel safes and lots of cash police say they confiscated from the house of the interior minister’s son. Another hot item was the $4.5 million in cash found in shoeboxes at the residence of the Halkbank director.
The day did not end just with these developments. Five police officials, including the ones who were active in the operations, were removed from duty and replaced the same day, and two new prosecutors were assigned to the investigation. The prosecution team was also ordered by Istanbul's Chief Prosecutor to make any new decisions about the investigation’s future with a majority vote. These actions sparked loud criticisms that the government was interfering in the judicial operation. Later that night, it was announced that veteran journalist Nazli Ilicak was fired from the pro-AKP daily Sabah after she'd called on the ministers mentioned in the investigation to resign.
Several more police officers were removed from duty in provinces around Turkey. Huseyin Capkin, the Istanbul Police Chief was also removed from duty and replaced by Aksaray Governor Selami Altinok — who has no experience in law enforcement.
Baris Guler (son of the interior minister), Salih Kaan Caglayan (son of the Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan), Reza Sarraf and the Halkbank manager were arrested by court order along with 26 other suspects. Others, including the son of the Environment and Urban Affairs minister, businessman Agaoglu and the Fatih Mayor, were released. The government changed the regulation regarding the justice police and made the police chiefs and governors of the province their superiors, instead of the prosecutors. Governors are not elected in Turkey; they are assigned by the government from Ankara. Law experts and lawyers lambasted this change as more interference by the Erdogan government, and filed court complaints.
Journalists were banned from police headquarters and told to empty the press rooms at the judicial buildings.
Police station in Istanbul — Photo: Dickelbers/GNUFDL
The Union of Bar Associations of Turkey applied to the Council of State for the cancellation of the justice police regulation change. The Chief of Istanbul Police Intelligence was called to the prosecutor’s office to testify with claims of leaking information about the investigation to the suspects. Later, a police chief from the Ankara police force’s Anti-Organized Crime and Smuggling unit was found dead in his car. His family does not believe that he committed suicide.
President of the Republic Abdullah Gul declared,“If any corruption or wrongdoings are the issue, these will not be covered up, cannot be covered up.” Prime Minister Erdogan lashed out at comments made by U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime Islamist ally turned rival and believed by some to be pushing prosecutors to investigate the government. Erdogan dared Gulen to speak about him by name. More corruption claims were made regarding the high-speed train project between Ankara and Istanbul.
Three ministers resigned: Muammer Guler, Zafer Caglayan and Erdogan Bayraktar. The last one said the prime minister should also resign. It was leaked that Prosecutor Muammer Akkas was running another investigation and Bilal Erdogan — son of the prime minister — was among the 41 people on the list of those to be detained. However, the police did not obey the court order issued by Akkas. The prosecutor started an investigation against Istanbul Governor Huseyin Avni Mutlu and the newly assigned provincial police chief.
Prosecutor Akkas was removed from the Corruption and Bribery operation. He made a public statement about being halted from doing his job. Shortly afterwards, Istanbul Chief Prosecutor Turan Colakkadi made a harsh counter-statement against Akkas. Later in the day, another harsh statement came from the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) on the recently changed justice police regulation being unconstitutional. Prime Minister Erdogan told the press that he was the real target of the probe that involved his son. The prime minister also announced the new cabinet on that day.
After being run by Akkas for the last two years, the Corruption and Bribery investigation was taken over, and delivered to four other prosecutors. A massive protest was staged at Taksim Square in Istanbul over the corruption scandal, leading to police intervention and clashes.
Another change occurred at the Istanbul police staff as the chief for press and public relations was removed from duty.
The Prime Minister said the corruption allegations were aimed at hurting the country’s economy.
AKP deputy Hasan Hami Yildirim quit his party after being accused of putting pressure on the judiciary. He was the fifth senior member of the party to resign in the last two weeks.
Erdogan used his New Year's address to try to rally support around himself in the face of the accusations, which he blamed on foreign sources. "I invite every one of our 76 million people to stand up for themselves, to defend democracy and to be as one against these ugly attacks on our country," he said.