ISTANBUL: Europe voiced its concern Wednesday about the independence of the judiciary in crisis-wracked Turkey as the government embarked on a new purge of the police and moved to curb the powers of the country’s top legal body.
In its strongest comments yet on the deepening corruption scandal, the EU warned that a wave of police sackings could undermine the investigations and called on the authorities to ensure any wrongdoing was looked into in a “transparent and impartial” manner.
The political turmoil has rocked Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government to its very core just weeks before local elections in March and has sent Turkish financial markets tumbling.
In the latest development, 16 police chiefs in several major cities as well as the deputy head of national security were fired Wednesday.
The latest purge came just a day after the government fired 350 police in Ankara – bringing the total number sacked to over 700 since mid-December when the graft scandal broke, according to local media tallies.
And in a new twist to the increasingly complex power play, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) submitted a bill Tuesday seeking constitutional changes to restructure the top independent judicial body, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK).
Justice Minister Beckir Bozdag also said the government would block an HSYK investigation into alleged political pressure on police and prosecutors involved in the widening investigation that has targeted several key Erdogan allies.
“Proposals to curb powers of HSYK represent serious setback for the independence of the judiciary in Turkey,” the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muiznieks, said on Twitter.
The crisis has raised questions about the political survival of the prime minister, arguably one of the most powerful figures in modern Turkey who took office in 2002 after years of government instability and an economic meltdown.
“Turkey is going through one of the deepest crisis in its history. If the allegations are true, it means that the government is rotten to the core,” wrote Mehmet Tezkan, a columnist with the liberal Milliyet newspaper.
And the European Union – which predominantly Muslim Turkey has long aspired to join – weighed into the crisis Wednesday.
The European Commission said Turkey should ensure that allegations of wrongdoing “are addressed without discrimination or preference in a transparent and impartial manner.”
The firing of police officers and investigators was also a “matter of concern,” it added in a statement.
“These steps could undermine the current investigations and capacity of the judiciary and the police to investigate matters in an independent manner.”
The government insisted it would overcome the crisis, which Erdogan has described as a “dirty” plot to topple his 11-year-old administration.
“The government is in charge. We will never let the political and economic stability of Turkey be harmed,” Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan said.
Erdogan last year faced massive street demonstrations as Turks protested against a government critics say has become increasingly authoritarian and is seeking to impose its conservative Islamic values on many aspects of society in the staunchly secular state.
He and his allies say the probe was instigated by supporters of exiled Muslim sheikh Fethullah Gulen who wield considerable influence in Turkey’s judiciary and police.
The crisis erupted in December when dozens of leading businessmen and political figures – including the sons of three ministers – were detained over alleged bribery in construction projects and illicit money transfers by a state-owned bank to sanctions-hit Iran.
News reports said Tuesday another 25 people including civil servants had been rounded up.
Erdogan was forced into a major Cabinet reshuffle last month and the government has since gone on the offensive to root out foes in the police and judiciary.
The bill targeting the HSYK is due to be discussed by a parliamentary commission Friday, Turkish media reported.
The HSYK had said Tuesday it planned to look into allegations that new Istanbul police chief Selami Altinok was blocking prosecutors from carrying out further arrests in the graft probe.
But Bozdag said the government would not allow a probe into Altinok or several top prosecutors, including one who was barred from expanding the corruption investigation amid reports it may target Erdogan’s son.