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Protesting Turkish prosecutor piles pressure on PM

Turkey's outgoing Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan (front-L) and new minister Nihat Zeybekci (front-R) pose during a handover ceremony at the Turkish Economy Ministry in Ankara, Turkey, 26 December 2013.

A Turkish prosecutor accused police on Thursday of obstructing his pursuit of a high-level graft case, adding to public scrutiny of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s government as it hunkered down defiantly.

Three ministers had resigned after learning their sons were among dozens of people detained on Dec. 17 as part of the investigation into corrupt procurement practices, which has exposed Turkey’s deep institutional divisions and left the pugnacious premier facing arguably the biggest crisis of his 11 years in power.

Erdogan responded by replacing half his cabinet with loyalists on Wednesday while investors took fright, and the lira currency fell further on Thursday to an all-time low.

The new interior minister, Efkan Ala, will be in charge of Turkey’s domestic security and is considered especially close to Erdogan, who called the investigation a foreign-orchestrated plot without legal merit and responded by sacking or reassigning some 70 of the police officers involved.

In allegations disseminated to Turkish media in writing, prosecutor Muammer Akkas said he had also been removed from the case, which he described as compromised by police who had refused to comply with his orders to take more suspects into custody.

“By means of the police force, the judiciary was subjected to open pressure, and the execution of court orders was obstructed,” Akkas said.

“A crime has been committed throughout the chain of command … Suspects have been allowed to take precautions, flee and tamper with the evidence.”

The statement did not name any of those accused.

The government and police did not immediately respond. Turkey’s chief prosecutor Turhan Colakkadi said Akkas had been removed from the case because he leaked information to the media and failed to give his superiors timely updates about the probe as required.

Such regulations, tightened at the weekend on government orders, incense Turks who see an authoritarian streak in Erdogan and took to the streets in mass protests in mid-2013.

“Erdogan has a deep state, (his) AK Party has a deep state and Efkan Ala is one of the elements of that deep state,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the biggest opposition party CHP, using a term that for Turks denotes a shadowy power structure unencumbered by democratic checks and balances.

GETTING PERSONAL

During his three terms in office, the Islamist-rooted Erdogan has transformed Turkey, cutting back its once-dominant secularist military and overseeing rapid economic expansion.

But his response to the 9-day-old scandal has drawn a European Union call for the independence of Turkey’s judiciary to be safeguarded.

It has also rattled markets. The lira plumbed a record low of 2.1282 against the dollar at 1540 GMT on Thursday while stocks fell and government bond yields rose.

“The dismissal of half an entire cabinet is worrying enough. The corruption probe is escalating by the day, causing a further deterioration in market sentiment towards Turkey,” said Nicholas Spiro, head of Spiro Sovereign Strategy.

At an Interior Ministry handover ceremony earlier on Thursday, Ala said Turkey might have been targeted by neighbours jealous of its successes.

“When these developments are sustainable, attacks from various centres on the political stability of the country is not unexpected,” he said, without elaborating.

For Erdogan, the scandal is potent and personal.

It lays bare his rivalry with Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish cleric whose Hizmet (Service) movement claims at least a million faithful including senior police officers and judges.

Another of the three cabinet members who quit on Wednesday over their sons’ detention, Environment Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, broke ranks by urging the premier to follow suit.

The Turkish leader, facing local elections in March and a national ballot in 2015, was unmoved. Vowing no tolerance for corruption, he said on Wednesday the graft investigation had been tainted by foreign interests.

“It would not be incorrect to say that, with this (Ala) appointment, Erdogan has personally taken the reins of domestic affairs,” Sedat Ergin, a columnist with the mass-circulation newspaper Hurriyet, told CNN Turk television.

Unlike the rest of the 20-member cabinet, Ala is not a lawmaker and thus does not answer directly to a constituency.

In his previous post as undersecretary of the prime ministry, political sources told Reuters, he urged a crackdown on demonstrators who flooded the streets over the summer in protest at what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarianism.

“Who would you trust other than your undersecretary, with whom you have been working closely for years?” said one government source, who characterised the new ministers as “surprise” picks conveying Erdogan’s desire for fresh faces.



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