New protests as Turkey president signs judiciary curbs

The latest protests were organized by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was allegedly recorded discussing how to hide large sums of money

'THEY ARE THIEVES' Supporters of Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) shout slogans against the government as they hold placards reading 'there are thieves' during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, 26 February 2014. Tolga Bozoglu/EPA

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Thousands of protesters took to the streets Wednesday, February 26, in Turkey as the president signed a controversial bill tightening controls on the judiciary, deepening opposition resentment toward a government already grappling with a corruption scandal.

Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the capital Ankara, while in Istanbul demonstrators gathered on central Taksim Square, the scene of protests that have dogged the Islamic-rooted government on and off for months.

The latest protests were organized by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was allegedly recorded discussing how to hide large sums of money – a leak the embattled PM condemned as a “vile” montage and “completely untrue”.

The recordings, in which Erdogan and his son Bilal allegedly discuss hiding 30 million euros ($41 million), were posted on YouTube late Monday, February 24.

Protests swept six Turkish cities including Istanbul and Ankara the following day, at times turning violent.

Anti-government outrage continued Wednesday, as protesters chanted “Thieves!” and “Government resign!”

“He must be one of the richest prime ministers in the world. I was actually waiting for more (recordings). I don’t believe that they are fake or a montage,” Tugce Dil, a 26-year-old food engineer, told Agence France-Presse.

‘Gul must resign’

The recorded conversations allegedly took place on December 17, when a high-level corruption scandal implicating key Erdogan allies erupted.

Technology Minister Fikri Isik said Wednesday that five officials overseeing the encrypted phones used by the prime minister’s office had been sacked.

And parliamentary speaker Cemil Cicek condemned the purported phone-tapping as an “immoral act”.

The tensions came as President Abdullah Gul signed into force a controversial law giving the justice ministry greater control over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), an independent body responsible for appointing members of the judiciary.

It prompted opposition calls for the president to resign.

“The president has not used his right to veto…. He must resign because he has not been able to fulfill his duties,” said Oktay Vural, deputy head of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Gul last week shrugged off calls to reject the bill, saying it was not his place to challenge legislation passed by parliament.

He also indicated he would sign another bill strengthening state control over the Internet.

As he signed the bill Wednesday, February 19, Gul tried to appease critics by saying he had objected to 15 provisions that were “clearly unconstitutional”, and that he believed the Constitutional Court would deal with them.

The new judiciary law comes as Erdogan fights a corruption investigation that has ensnared members of his inner circle and brought down some of his ministers.

Erdogan has accused a former ally turned arch-rival, Fethullah Gulen – a US-based Muslim cleric with strong ties to Turkey’s police and judiciary – of being behind the probe.

In retaliation, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has sacked thousands of police and prosecutors.

30 million fake euros

At Wednesday’s protests, Mustafa Sarigul, the CHP’s candidate for Istanbul mayor – the biggest prize in the country’s March 30 elections – called on the government to resign, as party officials handed out fake money amounting to 30 million euros.

“We already knew that they (the government) were plundering the country. But the recordings are further proof of it,” said Yusuf Eksi, an actor.

“Sooner or later Erdogan will be tried.”

Erdogan’s supporters had a different take on the corruption allegations.

“I admit that there might be corruption. But what matters most is that our prime minister is working for the good of his people,” said Ayse Ozbek, a 38-year old mother of three who wears a headscarf.

“Is there a government in the world that is not corrupt?” – Rappler.com