ISTANBUL – Turkey launched a new mass purge of the police and judiciary on Wednesday, as parliament debated controversial legal reforms that have heightened the crisis engulfing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Around 470 police were sacked or reassigned in the capital Ankara, and another dozen police chiefs were removed from their posts in the western port city of Izmi, local media reported.
The police purge followed a similar move on Tuesday by the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), which removed 96 judges and prosecutors from their jobs.
The actions are the latest in a series of mass shake-ups since a corruption scandal targeting several top politicians and business leaders, including Erdogan allies, erupted in mid-December.
At least 2,000 police and prosecutors have been dismissed or reassigned in recent weeks in what critics have blasted as government efforts to stifle the corruption probe.
Erdogan, on a visit to Brussels Tuesday to try to advance Turkey’s EU membership bid, defended the government moves despite concerns at home and abroad.
Those who fell victim to the latest reshuffle include five chief prosecutors and other senior figures who oversaw the trials against hundreds of top military officers convicted of plotting against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
The purge extended to other sectors at the weekend, with the dismissal of high-ranking officials at Turkey’s top banking watchdog, communications regulatory body and state television.
Dozens of people, including the sons of ministers and business leaders, were rounded up a month ago on allegations of bribery in construction projects, money laundering, gold smuggling and illicit dealings with Iran, setting off the worst crisis in Erdogan’s 11-year rule.
But the prime minister insists it is a “coup plot” by supporters of exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a onetime AKP supporter, to destabilize the government ahead of local elections in March.
The turmoil has had a major impact on the economy, sending the lira tumbling to record lows almost daily and jeopardizing government growth targets.
In Brussels, the prime minister refused to budge on the reforms, brushing off EU concerns about the threat they pose to the independence of the judiciary— a key criteria for membership of the European club.
“The judiciary should not go beyond its defined mission and mandate. This is what we’re doing. Anything else is misinformation and disinformation,” Erdogan said.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said he had urged Erdogan “not to backtrack on achievements and to assure that the judiciary is able to function without discrimination or preference, in a transparent and impartial manner.”
The Turkish parliament is currently debating the bill, which calls for greater government control over in appointments at the HSYK, the country’s top independent judicial body.
But the opposition has been using a variety of tactics to try and stall discussions on what it considers unconstitutional legislation.
“Nobody has faith in the rule of law and the democracy anymore,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, as he unveiled its new slogan ahead of the elections: “Turkey’s Unifying Power.”
But the head of the Turkish Bar Association, Metin Feyzioglu, defended the reforms saying: “For justice, we have to introduce an efficient, independent and impartial system.”
The corruption scandal has sparked new protests against Erdogan after he faced down a wave of nationwide anti-government demonstrations in June.
Turks have come out on to the streets to demand his resignation over the corruption scandal and what many see as his increasingly authoritarian rule, including recent moves to clamp down on the Internet.
Gulen, in his first media interview since the crisis erupted, warned that Turks were “upset that in the last two years the democratic progress is now being reversed.”
He also told the Wall Street Journal he was worried about the government’s moves to try to repair ties with the army, which has led coups against three previous administrations since 1960 as self-declared guardians of the secular state.