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No truce in Turkey as Erdogan party sees graft probe as coup

ISTANBUL — Turkey's ruling party will continue to purge police and judiciary members pursuing corruption charges against government officials and will then seek to prosecute them for attempting a coup, a top party official said.

"My opinion is that they are criminals — the police and the judges and prosecutors," Osman Can, a member of the central committee of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, said in a Jan. 6 interview in Istanbul. "If you can destroy this organization, you can save democracy."

The remarks suggest there's little scope for an easing of tensions between the government and followers of the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan's party blames Gulen supporters in the judiciary and police for pursuing the graft probes in an effort to discredit it before local elections in March.

Since news of the 15-month secret probes broke on Dec. 17, when the sons of three cabinet ministers were among dozens detained, the government has removed prosecutors and dismissed about 1,800 police officers, according to Hurriyet newspaper. In a new wave of dismissals announced Wednesday, the government reassigned Muammer Bucak, a deputy head of the national police force, and recalled chiefs of 15 provinces, including the capital Ankara, according to a decree in the Official Gazette.

The political turmoil has hit markets. Turkey's currency and bonds have been the world's biggest decliners since the arrests began, while the benchmark stock index fell 8 percent. Fitch Ratings said Tuesday that the turmoil could lead Turkey to lose its investment-grade rating, should it undermine the government's ability to maintain economic stability.

Gulen's movement and Erdogan's party were allies for most of the past decade. They split over issues including Erdogan's pursuit of a peace accord with Kurdish militants, and the government's decision to close the university exam prep schools that are a source of influence and income for Gulen followers, according to Can, a former rapporteur at the Constitutional Court.

He said that only those followers of the cleric who have sought to topple Erdogan's elected government will be targeted, while other sympathizers working in state institutions won't face retribution. Can said the group's structure and obedience to one leader mean that its more "militant" members aren't compatible with democratic systems.

"They have their own agenda, which definitely does not fit with civil democracy," Can said. "After they are removed, the government should prosecute them to the end."

Prosecutors in the city of Izmir Tuesday widened the graft probe by detaining officials at Turkey's state railways authority. The government responded by removing the police officers in charge of the raids, according to Radikal newspaper.

"The rule of law is by far the most notable casualty of the ongoing crisis," Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London, said in e-mailed comments on Jan. 6. "It is unclear whether the government is committed to this principle, and it is equally questionable whether the judiciary and the police can actually deliver justice."

Can said that while some of the corruption charges may be true, the way in which the probes were carried out made them part of a coup attempt, not a legitimate judicial process.

Among those arrested are the son of the interior minister, who was found with several safes at his house filled with cash, and the chief executive officer of a state-run bank, who had $4.5 million stuffed into shoeboxes, which he said was donations to build Islamic schools.

Erdogan says the detentions aim to block Turkey's economic progress by targeting businessmen involved in major infrastructure projects.

"In all democracies, there is corruption," Can said. "But if you don't have a democratic system, those with bureaucratic power can destroy the political will, destroy political parties, for instance, by using corruption as a manipulative tool. They are very dangerous."

Turkey's democratic deficiencies stem from a system inherited by Erdogan's party in 2002 and a constitution written under military rule in the 1980s, Can said. The government has been unable to redraft the charter due to opposition from parties with vested interests in the status quo, he said.

Gulen supporters dominate "all the control points" of Turkey's judiciary, even though they account for about 15 percent of its personnel, Can said. He said the government is "discussing every possible option" to remove that influence.

Late Tuesday, the ruling party submitted a proposal to parliament to cut powers of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, which elects judges and prosecutors and last month criticized the government for damaging the independence of judiciary. The proposal empowers the justice minister to appoint most judges.

The party also may consider changing its self-imposed three-term limit for members of parliament, after which they are required to step down from office, Can said. That rule applies to much of the party's leadership, including Erdogan, whose third term comes to an end next year.

"You have rules, but if you have exceptional situations, you can make exceptions," Can said. "If the crisis holds on, they could make an exception, and I would support this exception. This crisis can't continue."
 

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