Corruption commission votes against referral of ex-ministers for trial

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The parliamentary commission established to look into claims of corruption against four former Cabinet ministers has voted against referring them to a top court for trial amidst allegations of the government placing heavy pressure on ruling party members of the commission.

Nine ruling party members of the 14-member parliamentary Corruption Investigation Commission voted, as expected, against referring the four former ministers to the Constitutional Court in a session of the commission on Monday.

The remaining five opposition members of the commission voted in favor of a referral to the Constitutional Court, which is called the Supreme State Council when it tries top state officials.

Members of the commission expressed their opinion in an open ballot voting separately for each of the former ministers whether they should appear before the top court.

The four former ministers — Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan, Interior Minister Muammer Güler, EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış and Environment and Urban Planning Minister Bayraktar — left their posts under claims of corruption a week after a graft probe went public on Dec. 17, 2013.

The commission convened under serious psychological pressure, with the pro-government media unanimously describing, following the example of the ruling party, any referral to the top court as the “final phase of a coup plot” against the government.

Statements by some members of the ruling party and headlines by pro-government media which said a referral of the former ministers to the top court would mean a coup against the government have been blasted by the opposition for preventing members of the commission from voting solely based on their conscience on the issue.

Answering questions by reporters in Parliament following the commission’s voting, commission head Hakkı Köylü, a deputy from the ruling party, dismissed claims of pressure over the commission though his body language revealed that he was not all that comfortable. His face was flushed and he stumbled while answering the question.

The five opposition members of the commission expressed their dissatisfaction with the verdict at a press meeting held in Parliament after the commission’s meeting.

Claiming that the members of the commission from the ruling party had acted as per instructions from top figures in the party, Levent Gök, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), declared that the result would cause public trust in politicians to decline.

“While we have offered support to any effort that would reinforce trust in politics and politicians, it is not possible to eliminate the bad effects of this harm which the AKP [another version of ruling AK Party] has caused,” he said.

Regardless of what the commission’s verdict will be regarding the four former ministers, it is Parliament that has the final say on whether they will be referred to the top court for trial.

The commission is to submit its report regarding the former ministers to Parliament by Jan. 9. Parliament then needs to bring the topic to discussion within the next 10 days, handing out copies of the commission’s report to lawmakers beforehand.

As per regulations, Parliament needs, by a secret ballot, to conduct a vote by Jan. 29 on whether the four former ministers should be referred to the Constitutional Court.

All these are an effort to keep under control the voting of the commission members from the ruling party, Engin Altay, the parliamentary group deputy chairman of the CHP, told Today’s Zaman.

A simple majority, which corresponds to 276 votes in the 550-member Parliament, where the ruling party enjoys a comfortable majority with 312 deputies, would be enough to send the former ministers to the top court. For that, 53 ruling party deputies also need to vote to refer the former ministers to the Constitutional Court, assuming that all opposition deputies vote the same way.

Following two sweeping graft probes that went public on Dec. 17 and 25 of 2013, the ruling party has tried to circumvent allegations of corruption by claiming that the graft investigations are aimed at ousting the government.

The Constitutional Court has also come under attack, having recently been labelled by various ruling party figures and pro-government media outlets as an institution critical of the government, implying that it is a court that cannot be trusted.

Bülent Turan, a lawmaker and deputy secretary general of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), signaled ahead of the voting on Monday that the ruling party would not allow their friends to be tried by a court which he claimed was acting like a main opposition party.

“We will settle minor issues of unethical character among ourselves,” Turan told reporters in Parliament.

The CHP’s Altay dismissed the claim that a referral to the Constitutional Court is part of an effort to oust the government, saying, “Why then did you [AK Party] make these four ministers resign if there is no corruption?”

The ruling party, as well as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who is also allegedly involved in corruption, seem deeply concerned about an eventual referral of the former ministers to the top court as that may pave the way for the court to revive the two graft probes that have been blocked by the government.

If the commission should state in its report its opinion that the four suspects should be referred to the top court, the government’s claim that the graft probes of December 2013 were nothing but a coup attempt would then become meaningless.

Oktay Vural, parliamentary group deputy chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), accused the ruling party of producing unbelievable arguments to block the referral of the former ministers to the top court.

Noting that 13 out of 17 members of the Constitutional Court were selected by the ruling party, he said: “By claiming that a referral would signify the final phase of a coup plot, they [government] are placing the commission under pressure,” he told Today’s Zaman.

According to Vural, the attitude of the ruling party is further proof that it is involved in corruption. “If they were not afraid of appearing before justice, they would not act in such a fashion,” he said.

The establishment of the commission, as well as its further program, has continually been delayed by the AK Party. The parliamentary commission was originally expected to deliver a verdict regarding the four former ministers in a meeting on Dec. 22, but the verdict was delayed due to some new documents presented by some of the former ministers against the accusations.

Excerpts from commission meeting minutes revealed that the assets of three of the former ministers — economy minister Çağlayan, interior minister Güler and EU Affairs minister Bağış — had increased disproportionately.

A report submitted to the commission by an expert of the Finance Ministry’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) had said the increase in the personal assets of the three former ministers was disproportionate compared to their monthly salaries.

According to the minutes published by the Hürriyet daily on Friday, Çağlayan said in his written objection to the report that the expert who prepared the report was not impartial, while Bağış maintained that the commission could not look into his accounts from before 2013. Both objections were reportedly dismissed by the commission.

According to İdris Bal, the leader of the Democratic Progress Party (DGP), the accusation against the Constitutional Court by the ruling party is due to panic.

“This is due to a psychology that is born out of having done things which one needs to fear,” Bal, a former AK Party deputy, told Today’s Zaman.

The ruling party is afraid that the investigation would also include President Erdoğan and his family members and harm the party ahead of the upcoming general elections scheduled to be held in June.

The postponement by the commission at its Dec. 22 session was greatly criticized by the opposition, which maintained that President Erdoğan, who was prime minister when the probes went public, intervened to delay the commission from voting.

Before the deferral of the commission’s voting, the ruling party seemed to be divided on the issue of the ministers’ being sent to trial. While Erdoğan is maintained to have been pushing against an eventual referral to the top court, remarks recently made by some leading AK Party officials make one think there were party members who were in favor of referral of the four ex-ministers to the court for trial.

One day before the commission put off the verdict, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said the government would punish whoever is involved in corruption, even if those who are involved in corruption were his brothers.

The government has decided to cut off those who are involved in corruption, the prime minister said.

Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, who is from the ruling party, signaled over the past week that the four ex-ministers should choose to be put before the top court, saying the debate on corruption will not rest unless they appear before the court.

Davutoğlu and his team may be desirous of the suspects being tried before the law as they want the party to appear clean ahead of the upcoming general elections, scheduled to be held in June.

Erdoğan, on the other hand, may be concerned that should the ruling party allow the former ministers to be tried, he and some of his family members may also find themselves accused of corruption in the future. As president however, Erdoğan cannot be called to account before a court based on any charge other than treason while in office.

According to documents sent to Parliament by the İstanbul Prosecutor’s Office, which conducted the probe, Çağlayan, Güler and Bağış are accused of receiving bribes from Reza Zarrab, an Iranian business person of Azeri origin based in Turkey.

Former minister Bayraktar, for his part, was accused of paving the way for building contractors to obtain illegal profits by changing the status of protected areas, in order to pave the way for construction on the sites by pro-government businesspeople.

Bayraktar publicly said, after announcing his resignation on Dec. 25, that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan should also quit, as most of the amendments to construction plans in environmentally protected zones mentioned in the corruption investigation were made at Erdoğan’s instructions.

The parliamentary commission was established, though with much delay due to the government’s delaying tactics, to question the four ex-ministers as part of the corruption probe, as the prosecutors were not able to call them to give statements due to the legislative immunity the ex-ministers enjoy as deputies.

According to the graft probe of Dec. 17, Zarrab managed a network in Turkey that laundered huge amounts of Iranian money — as much as $87 billion — to circumvent international sanctions against Iran.

According to summary of proceedings, Zarrab is claimed to have distributed a total of TL 137 million ($66 million) in bribes to the four former ministers and the sons of three of the ministers so that they would help with fictitious exports and money laundering. According to the CHP, the total amount involved in the alleged government corruption could be a sum as large as TL 247 billion ($113 billion).

Zarrab is alleged to have bribed Çağlayan with a total of $52 million on 28 different occasions, Güler with a total of $10 million on 10 occasions and Bağış with a total of $1.5 million in bribes on three separate occasions.

There are also claims that Çağlayan may have received a total of TL 105 million ($50.5 million) in bribes from Zarrab in return for having bureaucrats in his ministry aid the alleged criminal organization in its unlawful business dealings, including the gold trade.

A plane flying from Ghana to Iran landed in İstanbul on Jan. 1, 2013, declaring that it carried 1,500 kilograms of “mineral samples.” However, upon inspection, customs officers found the plane had 1,208 kilograms of gold along with 250 kilograms of unidentified minerals as cargo.

The main opposition party has claimed that 292 kilos of the gold on the plane, which was worth $14.6 million at the time, was missing before the plane was sent back to Ghana. “I ask the prime minister, who stole the 292 kilos of gold?” CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said during budget discussions in Parliament at the beginning of December.

The smuggling of gold, in which Zarrab was directly involved, was facilitated by the state-run Halkbank, which claimed that there were no regulations prohibiting trading precious metals with Iran when the trades were taking place. Then-Halkbank CEO Süleyman Arslan was detained on Dec. 17, and $4.5 million in cash was found stuffed into shoeboxes in his home. Arslan claimed that the money was going to be used to build religious schools abroad.

Based on another major graft probe that went public on Dec. 25 of last year, President Erdoğan and his son Bilal were also allegedly involved in corruption.

However, the judicial process in both the corruption investigations has been blocked by prosecutors who replaced those who had originally launched the probes.

In an effort to discredit the graft probes, the government has labeled them as a coup attempt against the government. Then, shortly after the probes went public, all the prosecutors and police officers who had launched the probes were replaced.

The prosecutors who replaced the original ones decided, several months ago, to drop the charges against the suspects in both the investigations without feeling the need to bring the charges before a court.

TZaman January 05, 2015, Monday/ 17:34:14/ AYDIN ALBAYRAK / ANKARAAli Aslan Kılıç contributed to this report.

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