Middle East

Turkey frees all suspects in corruption probe

Turkish Economy Minister Zafer Caglayan Minister of Economy, left, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talk during a roundtable discussion hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thursday, May 16, 2013, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

ISTANBUL: A Turkish court on Friday released the last five suspects, including the sons of two ministers, detained in a corruption probe that has struck at the heart of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government.

Baris Guler, the son of the former interior minister, as well as Kaan Caglayan, the son of the ex-economy minister, and Azerbaijani businessman Reza Zarrab were among the remaining accused freed pending trial, local media reported.

The private NTV channel said an Istanbul court made the decision because the necessary evidence had been collected. The five were also given a travel ban.

Asked about the releases during a visit to the western city of Balikesir, Erdogan told reporters: "This is what I expected. Justice has been served."

Guler and Caglayan stand accused of acting as intermediaries for giving and taking bribes, while Zarrab was suspected of forming a ring that bribed officials to disguise illegal gold sales to sanctions-hit Iran via state-owned Halkbank.

The men walked free two weeks after Suleyman Arslan, the former chief executive of Halkbank, was also released. He faces allegations of corruption, fraud and money laundering in connection with illegal gold sales to Iran. 

Police also seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes from his home. In subsequent street protests against government corruption, citizens have waved empty shoe boxes as a symbol of their anger. 

The graft scandal first erupted with police raids on December 17, when dozens of Erdogan's key business and political allies were detained. The fallout prompted a cabinet reshuffle and the resignation of three ministers whose sons were among those targeted.

The controversy has since widened to implicate Erdogan himself, after recordings were leaked online this week in which the premier can allegedly be heard discussing hiding large sums of cash and conspiring to extort a bribe from a business associate.

The premier has accused supporters of exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, who wields considerable influence in the judiciary and police, of launching the corruption probe to destabilise his government ahead of local polls in March and a presidential election in August. 

Erdogan retaliated by sacking hundreds of police and prosecutors believed to be linked to Gulen, but the crisis has evolved into the biggest challenge yet to his 11 years in power.

His Islamic-rooted government has more recently pushed through legislation tightening state control over the Internet and the judiciary, generating criticism at home and abroad and raising questions about the state of democracy in Turkey.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) on Friday asked the country's top Constitutional Court to repeal the law on judiciary curbs.

The United States on Thursday said in its annual Human Rights Report that Turkey's judicial system was "politicised" and "overburdened".

The opposition has stepped up calls for Erdogan's resignation following the revelations of the incriminating audio recordings.

Thousands of demonstrators have also taken to the streets in Ankara and Istanbul this week to protest against the premier and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

In a tape posted on YouTube on Monday, Erdogan can allegedly be heard telling his son Bilal to dispose of some 30 million euros ($41 million) in cash on the day of the December 17 police raids.

In a second audio recording leaked on Wednesday Erdogan can purportedly be heard advising his son not to accept $10 million promised by a businessman in order to extort more money from him. 

Erdogan has dismissed the recordings as fabricated, saying they were the result of a "vile montage" by his rivals.

Prosecutors have opened a probe into the phone-tapping incidents.

It comes after the government accused associates of US-based Gulen in the police and judiciary of eavesdropping on thousands of people, including the premier, cabinet ministers and journalists.





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