On May 16 the Ankara Public Prosecutor initiated an investigation into claims by Vice President of the Constitutional Court of Turkey Osman Paksut, that he had been the subject of a surveillance operation by the country’s police.
The Constitutional Court is currently hearing a case for the closure of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on the grounds that it has become a center of anti-secular activity. The indictment also calls for 71 members of the AKP to be banned from party political activity, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and 37 members of parliament (see EDM, April 1).
The scandal broke on May 14 when Paksut called the police on his cell phone to notify them that he suspected his car was being followed by a black Fiat Doblo. When a uniformed police unit arrived at the scene and confronted the two occupants of the Fiat Doblo, they discovered that they were members of a plainclothes police unit. The plainclothes unit refused a request by Paksut to open the trunk of the vehicle, which he believed contained surveillance equipment.
The Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the police in Turkey, later released a statement confirming that the occupants of the Fiat Doblo had been involved in a surveillance operation but claimed that they were members of the Narcotics Unit working on an unrelated case related to drug smuggling. It subsequently released another statement saying that the undercover officers were in fact members of the Organized Crime Unit.
Paksut remained unconvinced. He later alleged that he had been under surveillance ever since the case against the AKP was first filed on March 14. Under Turkish law, at least seven of the 11 members of the Constitutional Court need to approve the indictment against the AKP in order for the party to be outlawed. The case is not expected to be concluded until late 2008 at the earliest. Paksut has a reputation for being a hard-line secularist and is widely expected to vote for the AKP’s closure.
The anti-AKP media quoted Paksut as claiming that the police surveillance operation was intended to try to force him to resign from the Constitutional Court (Radikal, Milliyet, Vatan, Hurriyet, May 16). Under Turkish law, members of the court are appointed by the country’s president. If any current members of the court were to resign, their successors would be chosen by President Abdullah Gul. A former member of the AKP, Gul is one of those whom the March 14 indictment calls to be banned from party political activity.
The pro-AKP media chose not only to dismiss Paksut’s claims that he was under surveillance but to criticize him for jeopardizing an undercover operation by having the Fiat Doblo stopped by a uniformed police unit.
For many secularist Turks, the scandal has reinforced suspicions that the AKP is using the police for its own ends. The staunchly secularist Turkish military still enjoys a large degree of autonomy not only in terms of internal appointments but also when it comes to the identification of, and response to, perceived security threats. The higher echelons of the Turkish police, however, have long been highly politicized. In recent years, the force has tried hard to raise its standards: considerably reducing, though far from eradicating, human rights abuses, running training courses in cooperation with international bodies such as the EU, and sending hundreds of officers abroad to study at foreign universities. But high-level appointments still tend to be determined by a candidate’s relationship with the person or party of the interior minister rather than by merit.
Since the AKP came to power in November 2002, what was once merely a question of corruption or nepotism has taken on an ideological dimension. Many secularists already suspect that the AKP is trying to fill the police force with its conservative supporters. In the wake of Paksut’s allegations, the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) bluntly accused the government of using the police force to try to influence the outcome of the closure case by blackmailing the members of the constitutional court. “Are they trying to collect information on the members’ private lives in order to blackmail them?” asked CHP Chairman Deniz Baykal (Radikal, Milliyet, May 16).
Besir Atalay, the AKP minister of the interior, has rejected opposition demands that an investigation be launched into the incident. As a result, it is currently unclear whether the allegations made by Paksut and Baykal are justified. The incident involving Paksut came, however, at a time when the Ministry of the Interior was still devoting considerable resources to investigating the ultranationalist Ergenekon gang (see Terrorism Focus, January 29), which is suspected of planning to launch a violent campaign in order to destabilize the AKP government and trigger a military takeover. Since the first arrests were made in January, the pro-AKP media has effectively accused the Turkish military of being behind Ergenekon and claimed that the gang was responsible for many of the recent bombings and assassinations in Turkey which have been attributed to violent Islamist groups.
In fact, although it was prepared to use violence, Ergenekon was a very minor group which was poorly organized and with very limited capabilities. Even if it included a handful of retired military personnel, it was certainly neither established nor controlled by the Turkish military itself.
Many Turkish secularists suspect that the disproportionate size of the police investigation into Ergenekon is in itself proof of an ideological agenda; an attempt by the AKP-controlled Ministry of the Interior to discredit the secularist Turkish military.
Regardless of whether the suspicions are well-founded, there are concerns that the resources devoted to the Ergenekon investigation are weakening police operations in other areas. In order to avoid offending conservative sensibilities, the Turkish authorities tend to refer to violent Islamist groups as “rightists.” The branch of the counter-terrorism department in the Turkish police responsible for combating violent Islamist groups is also designated as being responsible for “Rightist Activities.” As a result, the massive investigation into the relatively unimportant Ergenekon gang is diverting resources away from the violent Islamist groups who pose a much greater security threat.