The 2013 corruption scandal in Turkey refers to a criminal investigation that involves several key people in the Turkish government. All of the 52 people detained on 17 December were connected in various ways with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Prosecutors accused 14 people – including Suleyman Aslan, the director of state-owned Halkbank, Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab, and several family members of cabinet ministers – of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering and gold smuggling.[2]

At the heart of the scandal was an alleged "gas for gold" scheme with Iran involving Aslan, who had US$4.5 million in cash stored in shoeboxes in his home, and Zarrab, who was involved in about US$9.6 billion of gold trading in 2012. Both men were arrested.[3] The scheme worked after officials of the Turkish government found a loophole in U.S. sanctions against Iran that allowed them to get Iranian oil and gas. The Turks exported some US$13 billion of gold to Iran directly, or through the UAE, between March 2012 and July 2013. In return, the Turks received Iranian natural gas and oil. The transaction was carried out through Turkish state-owned bank, Halkbank. In January 2013, the Obama administration decided to close this loophole but instead of immediately charging Halkbank, the U.S. government allowed its gold trading activities to continue until July 2013, because Turkey was an important U.S. ally regarding U.S. policy in the Syrian Civil War, and the U.S. had been working on a nuclear deal with Iran.[3]

Then-Prime Minister Erdoğan (now President of Turkey) was out on a foreign tour of Pakistan when the scandal broke, which analysts believe changed the response of the AK Party or influenced those with the tapes to leak them at a time when Erdoğan was touring a key ally (Pakistan) abroad.[4]

Police investigation and allegations

On 17 December 2013, the Financial Crimes and Battle Against Criminal Incomes department of the Istanbul Security Directory detained 47 people, including officials from TOKİ (Housing Development Administration of Turkey), the Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning, and the District Municipality of Fatih.[5] Barış Güler, Kaan Çağlayan and Oğuz Bayraktar, who are sons of the Turkish ministers, Muammer Güler (Minister of the Interior), Zafer Çağlayan (Minister of Economy), and Erdoğan Bayraktar (Minister of Environment and Urban Planning) were implicated, as well as Mustafa Demir, the mayor of the district municipality of Fatih; the real estate businessman Ali Ağaoğlu; Süleyman Aslan, the general manager of Halkbank and the Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab.[6] who was considered as the key suspect in the investigation, who was reportedly involved in a money laundering scheme particularly regarding his transfer of gold and money to Iran via Turkey’s government-controlled Halkbank as part of a strategy to bypass United States-led sanctions on Iran.[2] Demir was detained on accusations of approving the construction license for a hotel near the route of the recently inaugurated Marmaray railway, despite warnings from Japanese engineers that the construction could put the tunnel at risk of collapsing. Demir was investigated for ordering the ministry report to be shelved in exchange for bribes.[7]

Moreover, Egemen Bağış, the Minister of European Union Affairs, is cited in newspaper articles as a potential suspect of bribery related to Reza Zarrab who has business affiliations with Babak Zanjani.[8][9][10]

The police confiscated some US$17.5 million as money used in bribery during the investigation; US$4.5 million was found at Süleyman Aslan's residence and US$750,000 at Barış Güler's.[11] Prosecutors accuse 14 people including Barış Güler, Kaan Çağlayan, Süleyman Aslan and Reza Zarrab of bribery, corruption, fraud, money laundering and smuggling gold. On 21 December, the court ordered the arrest of these 14 people.[12]

In total, 91 people were detained in the investigation; 26 of them were arrested by the court.[13]

Second wave

Several newspapers reported that a new investigation was expected on 26 December, possibly involving then-Prime Minister (now President of Turkey) Erdoğan's sons, Bilal Erdoğan and Burak,[14] as well as certain Al-Qaeda affiliates from Saudi Arabia such as Sheikh Yaseen Al Qadi and Osama Khoutub.[15] The police officers in Istanbul Security Directorate, newly appointed by the government just a few days previously, refused to carry out their orders, and the Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions did not approve this new operation. The man behind this second investigation, Prosecutor Muammer Akkaş, was dismissed on the same day.[16] Akkaş said he was prevented from performing his duty.[17]

A second wave of arrests was planned, and a list was leaked to the press.[18]

At midnight on 7 January, a government decree was published removing 350 police officers from their positions, including the chiefs of the units dealing with financial crimes, smuggling and organised crime.[19] Islamic community leader Fethullah Gülen described the decree as a purge of civil servants, while then-Prime Minister Erdoğan (now President of Turkey) described the corruption investigation as a "judicial coup" by those jealous of his success, namely the former's secretive Gülen movement, backed by foreigners.[22]

Government reaction

Since the beginning of the investigation, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has started a purge in the police force; sacking dozens of police chiefs, most notably Hüseyin Çapkın, the Chief of Police in Istanbul.[23] The Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice also changed their regulations, forcing security forces to inform their seniors of their actions at all times.[24] This received criticism from the Union of Turkish Bar Associations, who are taking the case to the Turkish Council of State.[25] The Turkish Council of State overturned the change of these regulations on 27 December, much to the disappointment of Prime Minister Erdoğan.[26]

Various opposition sources accused the government of trying to influence the judiciary system and covering up the corruption. Among them was the Nationalist Movement Party MP Oktay Vural.[27] A heated controversy erupted after the release on YouTube of audio recordings in which Erdogan was reportedly heard telling his son, Bilal, to urgently get rid of tens of millions of dollars. Erdogan has claimed the recordings were a montage but the experts begged to differ.[2]

In late December, Hurriyet and Yeni Safak papers published comments by Erdogan stating he believes he is the ultimate target of a corruption and bribery probe of his allies. The Turkish Prime Minister told journalists that anyone attempting to enmesh him in the scandal would be "left empty handed." Erdogan reshuffled his Cabinet on 25 Dec, replacing 10 ministers hours after three ministers, whose sons were detained in relation to the probe, resigned. One of those ministers called on Erdogan to also step down. The ministers’ sons were questioned over the scandal focusing on alleged illicit money transfers to Iran and bribery for construction projects. Two of them were later arrested on bribery charges.[29]

According to Hüseyin Çelik, who is serving as government spokesman, the four ministers who are involved in the investigation offered their resignation to the Prime Minister Erdoğan on 22 December.[30]

Erdoğan blamed the investigation on an international conspiracy and vowed revenge on the Islamic community of the preacher Fethullah Gülen.[31] There had been an antagonism between Erdoğan and Gülen for some time: Hakan Şükür, who is often regarded as a disciple of Gülen, had resigned his post in Justice and Development Party on 16 December.[32] Government officials accused Gulen and his followers of treason and started referring to them as "terrorists."[2]

Erdogan defended Halkbank chief executive Süleyman Aslan, describing him as "honest person". Aslan was charged with taking bribes by the prosecutors while the police are said to reportedly have found US$4.5 million in cash stored in shoe boxes in Aslan’s home.[33] After Aslan was arrested the bank's stock went down 32% for the year.[34] Erdoğan also threatened Francis Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, with expulsion.[35]

Erdoğan left the country for an official visit to Pakistan on 23 December, while the scandal was dominating the headlines.[4]

Muhammed Mısır, a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Health, resigned after bribery allegations on 24 December.[36]

Muammer Güler (Minister of the Interior) and Zafer Çağlayan (Minister of Economy), both of whose sons were arrested in the anti-corruption operation, resigned together on the morning of 25 December.[37] That same afternoon, Erdoğan Bayraktar (Minister of Environment and Urban Planning) resigned both as minister and as a member of parliament. Bayraktar said that he did not take kindly to having been forced into resignation, and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should resign as well, claiming that he had done everything with the Prime Minister's approval.[38][39]

İdris Naim Şahin, former Minister of the Interior, has resigned from Justice and Development Party on 25 December. He said the government's crackdown on the police organization and the judiciary system could not be explained with reason or the notions of law and justice.[40]

450 policemen in the Financial Crimes department were forbidden to enter the Istanbul Security Department HQ.[41]

Erdal Kalkan, a member of parliament in the constituency of Izmir from the ruling AKP, resigned from his party on 26 December because of the ongoing scandal.[42] Haluk Özdalga, Member of Parliament in the constituency of Ankara, resigned from AKP for the same reason.[43] Ertuğrul Günay, another MP in the constituency of Izmir and former Minister of Culture, was the third one to resign from AKP.[5] These three ex-members of AKP were each separately had been on investigation by AKP's internal discipline committee with the accusation of opposing AKP's own regulations. They all resigned before the committee reached a verdict.

On 31 December, Burdur deputy Hasan Hami Yıldırım resigned from the AKP, reducing the number of AKP parliamentarians to 320. Yıldırım accused the government of obstructing the investigation into the scandal.[5] He also criticized the campaign of “insults” and “defamation” against Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement, which he considered an attempt to "eradicate a civil society movement.”[5]

Erdogan's government dismissed or reassigned thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors - including those leading the investigation - and passed a law increasing government control of the judiciary.[5]

Cabinet reshuffle

In a speech to the press on the evening of 25 December, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the reshuffle of 10 members of his cabinet[29] in light of the scandal, saying that the reshuffle was to replace the three ministers who had resigned earlier in the day and others who were planning mayoral runs in the local elections in March 2014. This included the removal of Minister for European Union and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış, another figure in the scandal, from office.[5][5] The changes to the cabinet are:[5]

Other controversies

On 24 December, another video began to circulate that shows Ali Erdoğan, nephew and bodyguard of Prime Minister Erdoğan, instructing a police commissioner to abuse the detainees who had protested his uncle and hurling insults at him when he refuses.[5]

On 23 December, 35-year-old Hakan Yüksekdağ, a police commissioner in the Smuggling and Battle Against Organized Crimes Department of the Ankara Province Security Directory, was found dead in his car. His relatives dispute the official claim that Yüksekdağ committed suicide.[5]

On 24 December, Abdi Altınok, an Assistant Chief of Police in the Isparta Province Security Directory, committed suicide.[5]

Billionaire Babak Zanjani, an alleged partner and accomplice of Reza Zarrab, was arrested in Iran on 30 December.[6]