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Embattled Turkish PM Erdogan Retreats as Islamist Allies Raided

In the face of mounting pressure, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan withdraws bill curbing power of judiciary.
By Ari Soffer and AFP
First Publish: 1/14/2014, 5:54 PM

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan
Reuters

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he was ready to withdraw a contentious bill aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary as he battled to contain the worst crisis of his 11 years in office.

His about-face came as the country's political tumult took yet another twist with police raids against an Islamic charity close to the government that is accused of shipping arms to Syrian rebels.

The Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) branded the police raid - part of a wider operation against Al Qaeda - a "smear campaign" linked to a high-level corruption probe embroiling the Islamic-rooted government, echoing Erdogan's description of the corruption probe that has targeted key members of his inner circle.   

Erdogan, who once held an almost unassailable grip on power, has been battling on several fronts since police launched a series of anti-graft raids in December targeting members of his inner circle.

His government has sought to limit the powers of the judiciary and has sacked hundreds of police and prosecutors involved in the investigation in what critics say is an attempt to consolidate power. Erdogan claims the corruption investigation is a plot by an erstwhile ally to destabilize him ahead of key local elections in March.

The turmoil has sent Turkish financial markets plunging, with the local currency briefly hitting a record low of three lira to the euro on Tuesday.

But Erdogan offered a compromise in the row over the judiciary, saying the government was ready to withdraw proposed legislation curbing the power of judges - on certain conditions.    

"If the opposition agrees to constitutional changes governing this issue (the judiciary), we will freeze the proposal and if necessary will stop it from reaching the full parliament," he told lawmakers from his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). "We have defended the independence of the judiciary and made many reforms, but there is one thing more important than the independence of the judiciary and it is the impartiality of the judiciary."

'An act of treachery'    

It was not immediately clear what the constitutional amendments would contain.

Erdogan's comments came a day after President Abdullah Gul intervened personally to try to defuse the crisis over the bill, holding talks with several political leaders.

The legislation has been regarded by critics as a bid to head off the widening corruption probe that has seen the detention of dozens of people including business leaders, civil servants and the sons of cabinet ministers since December. The arrests have seriously shaken the rule of Erdogan and his Islamist AKP party. Last month, the Turkish PM replaced half his cabinet, following a slew of high-profile resignations.  

Erdogan is believed to be seeking the presidency if the constitution is changed to give the post US-style executive powers. But parliamentary efforts at adopting a new charter failed late last year.

Erdogan accuses supporters of exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen - who hold key posts in the police and judiciary - of deliberately acting as a "state within a state" to topple the government. On Tuesday, he described the December anti-graft operation as a "black stain on Turkey's democratic and legal history" and an "act of treachery".

And he also accused the Gulen movement of deliberately trying to undermine the Turkish secret service, the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).  

His comments appeared to be linked to the raid against the IHH, which claims it has become victim to the feud between Erdogan and the so-called Gulenists.

Media reports said a total of 25 people were arrested in anti-Al Qaeda raids by counter-terrorism police in several cities. The IHH said one of its staff was arrested in the operation in the southern town of Kilis, but denied any links to Al Qaeda.

"This smear campaign is backed by people inside and outside Turkey," IHH secretary general Yasar Kutluay told AFP.

"It is not only about IHH. They want to brand Turkey as a country which supports terrorism and want it to be tried before international courts," he said.    

Turkish media reported on January 1 that security forces had stopped - on the orders of a local prosecutor - a truck loaded with arms on the Syrian border and arrested three people.    

The drivers claimed they were carrying aid on behalf of IHH, and media reports at the time said an MIT vehicle was part of the convoy.  

The Turkish government has repeatedly denied it is involved in sending weapons to rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.    

However, in December, local media - quoting UN and government documents - reported that Turkey had shipped 47 tons of arms to the rebels since June last year.  

IHH is the same organization that was behind the infamous 2010 flotilla aimed at breaking Israel’s naval blockade of Hamas-controlled Gaza. Nine Turkish Islamists were killed in the Israeli raid on the IHH's Turkish-flagged Mavi Marmara, after extremists attacked Israeli security personnel as they boarded the ship. That incident helped send relations with Turkey, once Israel's closest Muslim ally, to an all-time low. 

The IHH also claimed that operation against it was linked to comments by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman this month describing the IHH as a threat to the interests of the Jewish state. Turkish Islamist groups - including officials from the ruling AKP party - have regularly resorted to blaming the Jewish state for political turmoil within Turkey.   

The Gulen movement, whose feud with Erdogan became public after the government unveiled plans to close its private school network in Turkey, is believed to back improved ties with Israel.