ISTANBUL - Dozens of police including high-ranking officers were detained in Turkey on Tuesday, accused of spying and illegal wire-tapping of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle in what the chief prosecutor said was a concocted probe of an alleged terrorist group.
The former Istanbul anti-terror police chief, himself among those detained and led away in handcuffs, said the incident was entirely political, coming just a few weeks ahead of a presidential election in which Erdogan is standing.
Police conducted raids in 22 provinces, and officers involved in a separate government corruption probe which emerged in December and led to the departure of four ministers were among those detained, Turkish media reported.
The officers were accused of making up an investigation into an alleged terrorist group named ‘selam-tevhid’ as a pretence to tap the phones of Erdogan, ministers and the head of the national intelligence agency.
“The order was given for the capture and detention of 76 police officers who were investigating the group named selam-tevhid but whose actual aims were spying,” Istanbul chief prosecutor Hadi Salihoglu said in a written statement. He said the ‘selam-tevhid’ case, targeting 251 people, had been dismissed due to a lack of evidence after a three-year investigation during which 2,280 people were wire-tapped.
Fifty-two of the 76 officers have so far been detained, and Turkish media published photos of former anti-terror police chiefs being led away in handcuffs by their colleagues. “We handed ourselves in and they handcuffed us behind our backs. It’s completely political,” former Istanbul anti-terror police chief Yurt Atayun was quoted as saying by CNN Turk as he was detained.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said he wanted to see the powers of the presidency boosted, adding that he expected his ruling AK Party to propose a new constitution after parliamentary polls in 2015.
Erdogan is hoping to become Turkey’s first directly elected president in a vote on Aug 10 and has made little secret of his desire to see the largely ceremonial role imbued with far greater clout if, as expected, he wins.
Erdogan said he has stopped talking to US President Barack Obama on the phone, amid growing strains between Ankara and Washington over Syria and the Gaza conflict. Turkey, a fierce opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and an open supporter of armed rebel fighters, felt betrayed when the United States backed away from military action against Damascus in September.
“In the past, I was calling him (Obama) directly. Because I can’t get the expected results on Syria, our foreign ministers are now talking to each other,” Erdogan said in a live interview on pro-government ATV channel late Monday.
“And I have talked to (US Vice President Joe) Biden. He calls me and I call him.
“I expect justice in this process. I couldn’t imagine something like this from those who are championing justice,” Erdogan added without elaborating, in an apparent jibe at Washington.
The last phone conversation between the two leaders took place on February 20 after which the White House released a statement accusing Erdogan of misrepresenting the content of the conversation.
A staunch advocate of the Palestinian cause, Erdogan has recently been at loggerheads with Washington over Israel’s offensive in the besieged Gaza Strip that has killed more than 580 Palestinians in two weeks.
Erdogan accused the Jewish state of carrying out “state terrorism” and a “genocide” of Palestinians and criticised the United States for defending Israel’s “disproportionate” tactics.
The US State Department branded his comments on Israel “offensive and wrong” but the prime minister hit back by saying the United States needed to engage in “self-criticism”.
Erdogan is standing in August 10 presidential elections that he is expected to win, with analysts awaiting a more assertive foreign policy from Ankara if he becomes head of state.