By Daniel Dombey in Istanbul
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Turkey’s corruption scandal has shifted from the courtroom to the parliament chamber, as opposition MPs seek to make political headway with allegations from investigations, now stalled, into government-connected figures.
However, legislation that passed the Turkish parliament late on Wednesday night, pending presidential approval, could give the government more scope to block these allegations from appearing on the internet, critics say.
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The latest shift in the drama concerns an alleged attempt by business allies of government to secure control of a media group in return for favourable treatment in state tenders. All of those alleged to have taken part denied any wrongdoing.
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This week the allegations gained added attention when Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the biggest opposition group, the Republican People’s party, took the floor in parliament to read out excerpts from purported conversations between the businessmen about the media group, ATV-Sabah.
Umut Oran, a deputy party leader, added that Mr Kilicdaroglu had called on his group’s MPs to read out more excerpts to keep the spotlight on the corruption case. He added that the party had in its possession a 240-page document prepared by a former prosecutor who has since been removed from the case.
“We are going to bring this agenda to the parliament,” Mr Oran told the FT.
He also said that a proposed internet law, which passed parliament on Wednesday night, would compel internet providers to remove content deemed to violate people’s privacy within four hours of a government order. He added that such a law could stop further allegations from appearing on the internet.
The opposition’s attempt to use parliament to air such claims appears to be a reaction to the government’s success at effectively halting multiple corruption probes by transferring thousands of police officers and dozens of prosecutors.
The probes, which focused on businessmen close to the government, state officials and ministers and their families, shook Turkey when they came to the public eye in December.
The heightened political debate over the scandal – even as the legal process has become bogged down – is set to intensify with local elections approaching on March 30th.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prime minister, says the probes were an illicit effort against his government by a “parallel state” within the state bureaucracy – a reference to the movement of Fethullah Gulen, a preacher and former Erdogan ally with many followers in the Turkish police and legal services.
While Mr Erdogan argues previous leaks about the investigations from prosecutors or police to the media violated the suspects’ privacy and the presumption of innocence, his critics say the prime minister has now subverted the rule of law and tightened his control over the judiciary and prosecution service.
The justice ministry has also declined to process prosecutors’ requests to lift the parliamentary immunity of four former ministers.
Mr Oran added that, after he asked Mr Erdogan last week about the ATV-Sabah case, Turkish authorities demanded that he remove the questions from his personal website, and also called on news sites not to report on his inquiries. The country’s telecoms watchdog later said this was a mistake.
The opposition lawmaker denied his party was aligning with the Gulenist movement in its battle with the AKP, arguing that it was merely in favour of the rule of law and access to information. Mr Gulen himself has denied any link to the corruption investigation and is suing Mr Erdogan for defamation.
To date, the stream of leaks on the web has continued, with one recording this week appearing to show Mr Erdogan calling up a television news channel to complain that a ticker highlighted criticisms made by an opposition party. The prime minister’s office had made no official response by Wednesday evening.
ATV-Sabah has featured in two acquisitions in recent years: it was purchased in 2008 by Calik Holding, a conglomerate whose chief executive was until recently Mr Erdogan’s son-in-law, and in December last year by Kalyon, a construction group involved in plans to build a showpiece airport near Istanbul and to remodel the city’s Taksim square – two projects championed by the prime minister. The allegations aired by the opposition party appear to refer to the most recent acquisition