Thirteen more suspects, including former Halkbank General Manager Süleyman Aslan, all of whom were detained after the breaking of a graft probe on Dec. 17, 2013, on charges of receiving bribes, money laundering and planning to circumvent international sanctions on Iran, were released on Friday pending trial.
With this decision, only two former ministers’ sons, Kaan Çağlayan and Barış Güler, Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab and two other suspects are still under arrest because of the graft probe.
Following a request from their lawyers for their release, Aslan and five other suspects, Abdullah Habbani, Ahmet Murat Öziş, Umut Bayraktar, Onur Kaya and Mohammadsadegh Rastgar Shishehgarkhananeh, who are also accused of corruption and bribery, have been released by the İstanbul 19th Criminal Court of Peace. The court has issued a ban on their leaving Turkey and ordered them to report periodically to the court to demonstrate that they are still in country.
Seven more suspects, including Sebahatting Demir, brother of Fatih Mayor Mustafa Demir, were released pending trial in addition to release of six suspects by the court during the day.
The suspects had applied to the court several times before for their release, but the court rejected their pleas on the grounds that they are still highly suspected of having committed a crime, considering the evidence against them and the severity of the charges. The initial reports did not specify the reason behind the court’s decision to release them at this time.
When the corruption scandal erupted in December of last year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swiftly rejected the authenticity of the probe, which implicated four ministers in his Cabinet, by stating that the graft probe was an attempt to sabotage democracy, the economy, Turkey’s foreign policy and the settlement process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in particular.
In what was widely perceived as a government attempt to suppress the probe, hundreds of police officers have since been reassigned or demoted, and the government has introduced a controversial bill to restructure the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the body in charge of appointing senior judges and prosecutors. These actions have been interpreted as an attempt to thwart a second corruption probe that sought to question his son and others close to the prime minister.
CHP Deputy Chairman Akif Hamzaçebi was harshly critical of the court’s decision, saying he does not accept it. “The government is subjugating the judiciary with the regulations it is gradually bringing into effect. [The judiciary] is already under the government’s de facto control. The HSYK law was a step in this direction. I don’t have any respect for the court’s decision [to release the suspects],” he said.
In a press conference in Parliament, Hamzaçebi said Erdoğan is deliberately pursuing a policy of increasing polarization among the public, adding that this policy is doomed to fail. “He will [struggle to stay afloat] and sink in the mud of bribery and corruption,” he added.
Aslan proclaims his innocence
In his defense, Aslan has stated that he was holding the money, some 4.5 million euros found hidden in shoeboxes in his home, for charity. But his excuse has not satisfied the public. Even Erdoğan, who rejected the corruption claims by describing them as a conspiracy against his government, rebuked Aslan, saying that stashing money in his home was “unacceptable.”
Aslan, however, continued to deny the charges against him at the 25th Criminal Court of Peace last month, saying: “When Reza Zarrab said he wanted to make some donations, the imam-hatip school [religious high school] I graduated from came to my mind. When I told him about the needs of the schools, he said he would be pleased to pay the expenses. But since we faced some technical problems while initiating the project, I kept the necessary money in my own reserve.”
Zarrab is accused of being the ringleader of a money-laundering and gold-smuggling scheme to dodge sanctions against Iran.
In his testimony, Aslan said a deputy was also with them and witnessed his conversation with Zarrab about donating to the imam-hatip school. He continued: “Besides, there is also a pledge to build a university in Macedonia, the International Balkan University. The head of the board of trustees of this university, also an İstanbul deputy, the initials of whose name are H.B., asked for my help, saying there were donations from Turkey but that transferring them to Macedonia is hard. In addition to this, he submitted 1.9 million euros in cash to me with his son C.B. We had difficulty in sending 450,000 euros of this amount as the first installment, since Macedonian local law limits the acceptance of donations.”
Aslan said he was therefore keeping the remaining cash, about 1 million euros, in shoeboxes in home. The remaining amount came from Zarrab as charity to be sent to a high school in Çorum, Aslan said, claiming that Zarrab also encountered difficulties in sending the money there.
On another occasion, Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan gave testimony to prosecutors on Feb. 5, in another probe that had been stalled after police allegedly refused to bring him for questioning on the prosecutors’ orders, Turkish media reported on Friday. Erdoğan’s son had reportedly gone to İstanbul Courthouse in Çağlayan district with his lawyers on Feb. 5 to give testimony about his alleged involvement in corruption.
Erdoğan’s son testified last week
Bilal Erdoğan’s testimony was revealed to the media a day after Prime Minister Erdoğan said his son and the sons of two ministers who were imprisoned pending trial would sue the prosecutors who had launched the graft probe.
Bilal was accused of a number of charges, including peddling influence in order to receive donations for a charity organization he heads and assisting in the collection of hundreds of millions of dollars from certain businessmen to fund the acquisition of the Sabah daily and ATV channel in return for public tenders.
Bilal was summoned for testimony a month ago by the prosecutors carrying out the second investigation. Ertuğrul Özkök, a columnist for the Hürriyet daily, reported in an article on Hurriyet’s webpage on Friday that he had learned of Bilal’s testimony from businessman Ali Ağaoğlu. He said Bilal entered the Çağlayan Courthouse in İstanbul through the front door. Özkök quoted Ağaoğlu as saying: “I wouldn’t send my own son to give testimony to those [former] prosecutors. But now the prosecutors have all changed, and so his [prime minister’s] son went and testified.”
Batum: saving Erdoğan’s son
CHP Eskişehir deputy Süheyl Batum said the current probe process and recent government-led laws, particularly one allowing the right of retrial to convicts from a number of cases, are a scam to save Bilal. “We will not let them rob this country. We will not let them swear at the mother of this nation,” said Batum, referring to a wiretapped conversation in which one of the businessmen implicated in the probe files curses the nation in a cheerful tone.
“Sincerely, I am really ashamed for calling Bekir Bozdağ [the justice minister] a minister and Erdoğan a prime minister. Such tremendous injustices… We are the deputies of this nation and declare to this nation that the laws [the government is drafting as part of a democratization package] are not meant to continue democratization but to disguise the Dec. 17 [process],” he said.
Batum also lashed out about news that Bilal and the ministers’ sons are preparing to file a lawsuit against the prosecutors who launched the probes in December of last year. Such a move would encourage the government and pave the way for corruption, Batum asserted.
Hamzaçebi also had a few of words to say about the news of Bilal’s lawsuit. He mentioned an article added to a draft bill that is currently with the parliamentary Justice Commission to change the HSYK law. He said this article had been included in the bill to revoke Article 93/A in the current law and allow the filing of lawsuits against prosecutors. The current law states that plaintiffs may open only administrative cases against the state over prosecutors’ wrongdoings. “This is holding up prosecutors as a target,” he said, adding that the prime minister’s intention is to punish prosecutors for the investigations they have been conducting against his inner circle. “This is not a democratic step. We are not accepting it,” he said.