Who’s on the phone?
A murky twist in the fight between the ruling party and the military old guard
DURING an interview with a Turkish minister recently, your correspondent was asked to remove the battery from her mobile telephone. “Otherwise our conversation will be tapped,” the minister explained. His paranoia may be understandable; over the past week Turkey’s elite has been rocked by tales of politicians, judges and journalists being wiretapped. Even the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complained that “they eavesdropped on me for six years”.
Much about this story remains murky. It is not clear, for instance, who might have been listening in on Mr Erdogan. Indeed, the scandal mainly involves allegations that the justice ministry, led by Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party, has been monitoring members of the elite suspected of involvement with coup-plotters in the so-called Ergenekon case.
The uproar started when Istanbul’s top prosecutor, Aykut Cengiz Engin, discovered his calls were being recorded. Some 55 other judges and prosecutors were being similarly tapped under orders from the justice ministry. “This is worse than Watergate,” fumed Deniz Baykal, the leader of the pro-secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
The justice minister, Sadullah Ergin, says the surveillance was legal and he may have been right. But as Husnu Ondul, a human-rights activist, puts it, “it’s the laws that are screwed up and most of them were passed by the AK party.” Under these broad legal powers, he says, “it is possible for a person to be tapped separately and concurrently by the police, the national intelligence services and the gendarmerie.”
Turkey’s chief prosecutor, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, who spearheaded a court case last year to ban AK, has seized on the affair to threaten to investigate whether the wiretaps were in breach of the constitution. If so, this could provide him with another excuse to try to shut down AK.
The row has little to do with justice. Rather, it is another twist in the long-running power struggle between Mr Erdogan and his mildly Islamist party, and an old guard led by the generals that has steadily lost ground. The army’s standing has been damaged by a slew of leaked documents detailing plans to foment chaos and topple the government. AK is hitting back with new laws pruning the army’s powers. The secret wiretaps may be just another weapon in this political fight.
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