Turkey underplays police shake-up

ISTANBUL - Turkey&39;s interior ministry said 1,000 police officers have been removed in the wake of a major corruption probe against key government allies, but said these were only "routine" re-assignments.

The government has embarked on a mass purge of police and prosecutors in the wake of the probe launched on 17 December targeting several members of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan&39;s inner circle.  

"While 15,000 police were subjected to such a shakeup last year, this number has only reached 5,000 this year. Only 1,000 of them are related to December 17," Efkan Ala said in an interview with Kanal 7 television.

Ala added that the police officers affected by the shakeups were not "sacked", but "reassigned" as part of a "routine procedure".

But Professor Halil Ibrahim Bahar, a security expert at Ankara Strategy Institute, said the reassignments in the police department normally take place in the summer and therefore the shakeups after mid-December were far from being "routine".

"Politicians are not telling us the truth. It does not matter how many police have been removed or reassigned. Discussing the numbers takes the attention away from the &39;corruption&39; itself," he told AFP.

"They have started to purge officials who are fighting the corruption. It is crystal clear that the purges are aimed at covering up the wrongdoing. They haven&39;t taken public interest into account."

The corruption scandal poses one of the most serious challenges to Erdogan in his 11 years in power, ahead of key local polls in March.

Erdogan accuses supporters of exiled Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen in the police and judiciary of acting as a "state within a state" and instigating the graft probe to try to topple the government.

He is accused of desperately trying to protect his cronies. The appointment of Selami Altinok, a little-known governor with no police career, as Istanbul&39;s new police chief in December was seen as another attempt to shut down the investigation.

The purges, coupled with legislation tightening state control over the Internet and judiciary, have generated widespread criticism at home and abroad about the state of democracy in the EU-hopeful country.

On Saturday, the parliament started to debate another controversial bill that would give the country&39;s spy agency sweeping new powers, including unlimited access to all private information. 

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