Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that a corruption investigation in which dozens of people have been detained was part of a “dirty operation” against his administration and linked it to a summer of antigovernment protests.
He said police officers removed from their posts in Istanbul on Wednesday, a day after the detention of 52 people including the sons of three cabinet ministers, had been sacked for abuse of office and said more could follow in other cities.
“As we fight to make Turkey in the top 10 countries of the world ... some are engaged in an effort to halt our fast growth. There are those abroad ... and there are extensions of them within our country,” Erdogan told a news conference.
The 52 officials and high-profile businessmen known to be close to the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) were arrested on charges including tender fraud, bribery and trading in gold.
Many domestic commentators believe that the high-profile arrests are a sign of a widening rift within the country’s conservative power base, between the AKP government and its former moderately Islamist allies, the so-called Hizmet movement lead by the influential exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is based in the US.
The detainees include the son of Turkish Minister of the Interior Muammer Guler, the cabinet member responsible for the police. Investigators found large amounts of cash stored in several metal cases as well as a money counting machine in a raid on the home of Baris Guler, the minister’s son.
In addition to the five senior officers, a further six junior police officials were also sacked.
The heads of five units in the Istanbul police force, including the departments for financial crime, organized crime, smuggling and antiterrorism were dismissed for “misconduct in office,” according to a public statement released by Turkey’s National Police Department.
The dismissal of the five police chiefs was widely criticized as an attempt to derail the ongoing investigation.
Earlier, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had rebuffed allegations of politically motivated attempts to muzzle the investigation.
“We will not side with corruption. Our government will respect the judicial process and its outcomes, and we will not interfere with the investigation,” he said.
Asked if the ministers involved in the investigation will resign, Arinc replied: “The prime minister will decide that.”
Turkish media reported that a long-planned Cabinet reshuffle, expected to replace up to 10 ministers, may come as early as today.
The police dismissals have sparked protest. The deputy chairman of the Nationalist Movement party (MHP), Oktay Vural, called the move a “blow against the rule of law.”
He added: “Nobody will be able to cover up this shame. Let public officials do their job.”
The cochair of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy party, Selahattin Demirtas, called the sackings “an intervention into the corruption investigation”.
Criticism also came from within the heart of the Erdogan’s governing AKP.
“I called the interior minister, but could not reach him,” said Turkish Minister of Finance Mehmet Simsek. “If this is an effort to hinder the investigation, it would of course not be right. But I don’t know if that is the case.”
Further details have emerged of the ongoing investigation. Police seized US$4.5 million in cash in the house of Suleyman Aslan, the director of the state-run Halkbank.