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Turkey ex-ministers escape trial over graft scandal

AFP , Monday 5 Jan 2015

Four Turkish ex-ministers who resigned over a 2013 graft scandal that shook President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government will not have to stand trial, a commission ruled Monday, in a decision the opposition called a "black day" for democracy.

The parliamentary commission's decision appears to draw a line under the December 2013 scandal which presented Erdogan, then prime minister, with one of the biggest crises of his rule over Turkey.

Erdogan angrily claimed the scandal was the brainchild of his ally-turned-foe, the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose Hizmet (Service) group the authorities have since moved to destroy with dozens of arrests which also continued on Monday.

The commission -- dominated by MPs from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- ruled against sending the cases to the Supreme Council court, its chairman Hakki Koylu said on national television.

Former interior minister Muammer Guler, ex-environment minister Erdogan Bayraktar, ex-economy minister Zafer Caglayan and ex-EU affairs minister Egemen Bagis faced accusations of bribery and influence-peddling.

The decision had been awaited on December 22 but was unexpectedly delayed for two weeks amid frenzied speculation over alleged government meddling.

"The vote was open. Everyone expressed their opinion, and cast his vote. Every allegation, every name was discussed. The vote was cast accordingly," said Koylu, an AKP lawmaker.

The voting fell according to party lines with nine AKP members voting against pursuing the cases with only five opposition members in favour, he added.

The commission will now draw up a report on the probe which will be presented to the parliament by January 9.

The opposition is expected to present a motion for the rejection of the report. But with the AKP enjoying a comfortable majority in the chamber, it is expected to be rubber-stamped.

The AKP appears determined to shake off the scandal ahead of parliamentary elections in June, where it is seeking a huge majority in order to change Turkey's constitution.

But the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) denounced the vote as a "black day" for Turkish democracy and an attempt to cover up the "most serious corruption, bribery and theft" claims in the country's history.

"Why are you scared?" senior CHP lawmaker Levent Gok said in televised comments, in an appeal to the AKP members of the commission after the vote.

"You failed the first test and set a bad role model for Turkey. The vote result does not mean the ministers were cleared of the accusations. This file is not yet over," he warned.

Several top Turkish newspapers had carried full page advertisements by a little known civil society group known as the Civilian Solidarity Platform opposing the sending of the dossier to court.

The advertisements were slammed by the opposition as a threat to parliament on the day of the commission vote.

The Supreme Council court, formed of the same members as the top constitutional court, only hears cases against cabinet ministers and other top officials.

The four suspects were accused of receiving bribes from an Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, to facilitate sanctions-busting trade and other deals.

Caglayan allegedly accepted a $300,000 (245,000 euro) watch as a bribe.

All four ministers resigned in the wake of the graft probe which prompted a swift cabinet shake-up, but have maintained their innocence.

The allegations also touched Erdogan himself after leaked tapes emerged in February where he allegedly told his son Bilal to dispose of some 30 million euros ($37 million) in cash on the day of the December 17 police raids.

Erdogan dismissed the recordings as a "vile montage".

The sons of Guler, Bayraktar and Caglayan were detained by police at the time as well as a host of other prominent figures who were later released. Prosecutors have already dropped a criminal case against 53 people due to a "lack of evidence".

Erdogan, who became president of Turkey in August, has accused Gulen of seeking to oust him from power through a "coup" and wants to extradite the influential cleric from the United States.

In the latest raids against pro-Gulen supporters, Turkish authorities detained at least 34 police officers suspected of the illegal eavesdropping of top officials including Erdogan.

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© 2010 Ahram Online.