Commission warns Turkey against purges of graft investigators

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an.

The Turkish government has purged hundreds of police, among them senior commanders, since a graft scandal erupted on 17 December. The European Commission issued today (8 January) a warning that recent developments in the largest candidate country are a ‘matter of concern’ for the EU executive.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an's AK Party sent plans to parliament late on 7 January which would give the government more say over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, the latest salvo in its battle against a damaging corruption inquiry.

Erdogan has cast the graft investigation, which poses arguably the biggest challenge of his 11-year rule, as an attempted "judicial coup" contrived by an Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who exercises broad, if covert, influence in the judiciary and police.

The ruling party bill, published on parliament's official website, proposes changes to the structure of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the body responsible for appointments in the judiciary, which Erdogan has criticized since the corruption scandal erupted last month.

It allows the undersecretary of the justice minister to be elected as chairman of the HSYK board, a move which would give the government a tighter grip over the choice of judges.

"No-one should remain unsupervised. In this country, the prime minister will be supervised, ministers will be supervised, parliament members will be supervised, but not these gentlemen?" he told a rally of supporters on December 29.

"This is not how it works," he said.

Erdogan and Gülen's Hizmet movement, which exercises influence through a network of contacts built on sponsorship of schools and other social and media organizations, accuse each other of manipulating the police and judiciary. Hizmet denies unleashing the corruption investigation.

The government has purged hundreds of police, among them senior commanders, since the graft scandal erupted on 17 December with the detention of dozens of people including businessmen close to the government and three cabinet ministers' sons.

The battle has heightened concern about the erosion of judicial independence in Turkey, which could in the longer term also damage its bid for membership of the European Union.

Asked today (8 January) to comment, European Commission spokesperson Olivier Bailly said that the recent removing, reassigning or firing police officers and investigators is are a matter of concern for the EU executive.

“These steps could undermine the current investigations and capacity of the judiciary and the police to investigate matters in an independent manner,” Bailly said.

The Commission spokesperson reminded that right from the beginning of the events on 17 December the EU executive hade expressed concern “at actions that could reduce or undermine the capacity of the judiciary and the police, acting on instructions of the judiciary, to thoroughly investigate allegations of wrongdoing, including corruption, ensure accountability and act in an independent manner”.

“The removal of a large number of police officers from their posts during the past three weeks, culminating in the removal of 350 police in Ankara on Monday's night, is a matter of concern due to its possible impact on the independence, impartiality and efficiency of current investigations,” Bailly said.

He added that in line with Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle's statement of 27 December, the EU executive urges Turkey “to take all the necessary measures to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner”.

Any action which undermines the effectiveness of investigations into these allegations should be avoided, Billy stressed.

Asked by the AFP correspondent if this statement signalled a major cooling in EU-Turkey relations, Bailly said that journalists were free to take the temperature of EU-Turkey relations themselves. 

A NATO member with hopes of EU membership, Turkey is locked in a long power struggle between the AK Party, which has its roots in political Islam, and conservative, nationalist secularists, whose bastions remain the military and judiciary.

Known as 'Kemalists', the Turkish military are considered guardians of Kemal Ataturk's secular legacy. After World War I, Ataturk sought to transform the ruins of the Ottoman empire into a democratic, secular nation state. In past decades, the military has toppled several governments. 

In 2008 the ruling AKP curtailed the army's power as part of what was presented as efforts to prepare the country for EU accession. In response, the military launched an unsuccessful bid to ban AKP. 

A wave of arrests of suspected members of 'Ergenekon', a mysterious organisation close to the secularist military establishment, brought new tension to Turkey. In the recent past, the EU has taken the side of AKP against those accused of "being members of the Ergenekon criminal organisation".

A sit-in against plans to demolish a park in Istanbul sparked the fiercest anti-AKP in recent years in Turkey, and the heavy-handed reaction by the authorities raised concerns in the West. 

Subscribe to our newsletters