Turk anti-corruption war strained

Seldom in European capitals do government and military leaders discuss corruption as a threat to national security. Last Friday, EU candidate Turkey’s powerful generals and senior cabinet members did just that. In the same hours, oddly enough, a state security court dropped fresh charges against a bunch of very important defendants whom it had released from detention last month in the Turkish maxi-trial, a multi-hundred-million-dollar web of intrigue and corruption at state hospitals involving, along with more than 50 others, Professor Dervis Oral, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash’s cardiologist. After the release of the defendants on June 27, a court clerk was caught stealing classified documents and CDs containing evidence against Professor Oral et al. The clerk confessed he would have sold this lot to defense lawyers. At a hearing on July 25, the prosecutor asked for the redetention of all defendants on the grounds that they had attempted to obstruct the course of justice by obscuring evidence. The chamber of judges was not impressed. It simply turned down the request. Surprising? No. The court, hearing what many people believe is a test case, has a habit of pleasing the defense. Last month, it released on bail all of the 54 defendants. To thicken the clouds over the case, the undersecretary to the justice minister was forced to confess he had interfered to secure the immediate release of a defendant who was a business partner of his brother. At the next hearing, the court may remove a freeze on the defendants’ assets. Meanwhile, a parliamentary commission investigating alleged corruption by former government leaders recommended an investigation into two former prime ministers, Bulent Ecevit and Mesut Yilmaz, along with 23 former ministers. Mr Ecevit, a respected political figure with a clean reputation, could be investigated for allowing companies to hand over overdue payments to the government in privatization contracts without interest. All politicians, with or without a clean reputation, must be investigated thoroughly if there is evidence for possible prosecution. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a man of contradictions. Ironically, an opposition newspaper has published a classified government document which showed that Mr Erdogan and his cabinet ministers had allowed a company, notoriously close to their party, to hand over overdue payments to the government in a privatization contract – and without interest. Similarly, Mr Erdogan has advocated the need for political reforms to pave the way for free speech – as he himself was once a victim and had to serve four months in jail. Last week, his justice minister, Cemil Cicek, approved prosecution for Mr Erdogan’s main political rival, Cem Uzan, for a speech at a public rally. True, the contents of the speech were more than enough for a libel suit in favor of Mr Erdogan (Mr Uzan had called the prime minister «treacherous»). But Mr Uzan will now be tried for «insult to a state official» and could get a prison sentence of up to three years. Mr Erdogan rose to power on numerous pledges which apparently appealed to the Turkish voter, among them a promise to reform the tax system to ease the tax burden. Once in power, he passed a slew of new taxes, including an additional tax on motor vehicles. After millions of drivers had paid the first installment, the Supreme Court scrapped the tax, saying it breached the Constitution. The trouble is, the court decisions are not retroactive and the good taxpayer, to put it mildly, has been cheated to the tune of more than $100 million. But there is more. Kemal Unakitan, finance minister, says the government will pass the motor tax once again. This time he may not be equally lucky. Inevitably, most taxpayers will avoid paying their taxes in the expectation of another court blow to Mr Unakitan’s tax plan. One might ask, of course, how could a government re-legislate new taxes with a court warrant in its hand that has already declared these taxes unconstitutional? Call it pragmatism. Mr Unakitan is routine news in Turkish newspapers. He passed an amnesty on tax fraud – which included a prosecution against himself. He plans another amnesty for unauthorized possession of state-owned property, mostly forests – including a piece of priceless state-owned property in the heart of Istanbul he himself possesses. Mr Erdogan’s re-election pledge to repeal a system of parliamentary immunity which would have paved the way for prosecution of corrupt politicians is history now – long forgotten. His government’s constant refusal to investigate financial irregularities involving himself and municipalities run by his Justice and Development Party may also have gone unnoticed. But the prime minister could have been more sympathetic to solid evidence of nepotism involving his transport minister, Binali Yildirim. Mr Yildirim’s son has won a lucrative deal from the state-owned maritime company. Also part of the deal is a German-based ferry operator and Mr Yildirim happened to be the chief executive official of this company before last November’s general election. So far, mum is the word for Mr Erdogan and Mr Yildirim. Two years ago, when the suspects in a scandal which in 1996 revealed a network of state-mafia relations, were sentenced (and later released), a state security court concluded, «Social justice and political stability cannot be achieved in a society where those who commit crimes are not punished.» But some criminals are punished in Turkey. For example, a traffic policeman who took bribes to the tune of $3.50 was caught last week in a smoothly run operation by his colleagues. The man faces prison terms of up to 12 years in jail and may not be as lucky as Oral and his colleagues.

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