x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Prosecutor investigating alleged Turkish coup plot taken off case

The controversial state prosecutor Zekeriya Oz, who has been gathering evidence against the Ergenekon group, an organisation that he says has plotted to bring down the Turkish government by force, has bee promoted away from the investigation after the arrests of journalists brought criticism.

Hundreds of Turkish journalists march to protest against the government and the arrests of seven journalists last week in Istanbul.
Hundreds of Turkish journalists march to protest against the government and the arrests of seven journalists last week in Istanbul.

ISTANBUL // Turkey has removed the lead prosecutor from an investigation into coup attempts by military officers and civilian nationalists, a step that indicates growing unease in Ankara with a probe that has sent prominent government critics and journalists to prison.

Zekeriya Oz, a prosecutor in Istanbul, was promoted to the post of a deputy chief prosecutor of the Turkish metropolis. The assignment eliminates the special investigation powers he has used since 2007 to gather evidence against the Ergenekon group, an organisation that he says has plotted to bring down the government by force.

The decision was handed down on Tuesday by the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, or HSYK, a body charged with filling judicial posts around the country. The government representative on the panel voted with four other members to remove Mr Oz, according to news reports yesterday. Two members wanted to keep the prosecutor in his post. The government did not disclose how each member voted.

Mr Oz told reporters he was surprised by the decision, but not angry. "I am very tired anyway" after four years of intense work, he said. Mr Oz added he was certain the investigation would go on without him.

"Investigations do not depend on people, but on what the files say."

One of Mr Oz's colleagues looking into the Ergenekon case, Fikret Secen, was promoted to the post of deputy chief prosecutor in charge of special investigations and will supervise the probe in that function.

The Ergenekon case is the most politicised trial in Turkey at the moment. While prosecutors, some media and independent observers say the suspected plotters have to be brought to justice, critics say the investigation is a plot itself, designed to blacken the image of the armed forces and silence government opponents.

Mr Oz has become known as the first Turkish prosecutor to successfully charge members of the armed forces for coup attempts. Turkey's generals have pushed four governments from power since 1960, but no military official has been tried for participating in a coup.

Many Turks supported the investigation as a long overdue boost for democratisation. Mr Oz and six other prosecutors in Istanbul have looked into several suspected coup plots and have succeeded in placing former high-ranking generals in custody. More than 250 suspects have been brought to trial so far, but none has been convicted.

"This country really should be grateful to prosecutor Oz," Ahmet Altan, the editor of the Taraf daily, wrote in a column yesterday. Taraf has made a name for itself by publishing documents about plots that were then taken up by Mr Oz.

But for all his courage to take on the Turkish military, Mr Oz has gone too far lately, government critics and even supporters of the investigations have said. The arrest last month of prominent journalists known for their anti-coup stance triggered wide-spread condemnation.

On Wednesday, shortly before Mr Oz's promotion was announced, police conducted raids on the homes of several scholars and seized documents. The popular theologian Zekeriya Beyaz said police took materials he had collected for an unfinished book critical of the influential movement of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, which is close to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has declined to comment on Mr Oz's removal, but there are indications that the government, which faces elections in three months, is worried that the journalists' arrests might hurt its candidates. Last year, the government blocked several attempts by HSYK members to remove Mr Oz. This time, it did not.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey's EU minister, said about the arrest of the journalists: "With the elections so close, it is the government that suffers most from such sensitive events in Turkey." Burhan Kuzu, a prominent member of Mr Erdogan's AKP, said that "the latest moves may have played a role" in the removal of Mr Oz.

The prosecutor also attracted criticism by refusing to unveil the evidence on which the arrest of the journalists was based. Some critics suggest Mr Oz may have acted out of personal vanity. Ibrahim Okur, the HSYK member who suggested that Mr Oz be removed, told the Vatan daily: "This guy has taken centre stage quite a lot."