U.S.-based Turkish cleric says used as scapegoat in graft scandal

ANKARA Mon Jan 27, 2014 5:42am EST

Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in this December 28, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency

Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen is pictured at his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania in this December 28, 2004 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Selahattin Sevi/Zaman Daily via Cihan News Agency

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ANKARA (Reuters) - U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen has denied giving orders to police and prosecutors in a corruption inquiry rocking the government, saying his worldwide movement of followers was being used as a scapegoat to divert attention.

In his first TV interview in 16 years, the influential preacher told the BBC that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan appeared to have been misled by a "circle of royals", a reference to the advisers who surrounded Ottoman sultans.

The corruption scandal, which has led to three cabinet resignations and seen businessmen close to Erdogan detained, has become one of the biggest threats to the prime minister's 11-year rule, spiraling into an open feud with Gulen, whose followers say they number in the millions.

Erdogan has portrayed the corruption inquiry as an attempted judicial coup by a "parallel state", a veiled reference to Gulen's Hizmet ("Service") movement, which exerts strong if covert influence in the police and judiciary.

"I think there is a circle of royals around him...I believe they reflect issues differently," Gulen said in the interview, broadcast on Monday and conducted at his home in Pennsylvania, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 1999.

Gulen, 72, rejected suggestions he had established "a parallel state", saying the thousands of police officers and prosecutors purged by Erdogan's government were not all from his Hizmet movement and shared many different ideologies.

"There will be nationalists among these people, for example ... But for the sake of exaggerating the issue, to show it as an alternative state that has infiltrated everywhere, they claimed that all those people they purged share the same ideas, same feelings," he said.

Gulen, who was eloquent throughout the interview, pausing at one point to have his blood pressure taken by a doctor, said he was sure that there were genuine corruption allegations to be answered by the government.

"These bribes, corruption by civil servants, misconduct in tenders ... these have been considered as crimes up until now ... so that police structure has moved to fight against this," he said.

"They were not aware that these had ceased to become crimes," he added sarcastically.

The government has denied it is behind the purge in the police and the reassignment of more than 100 prosecutors and judges since December 17, when the graft probe erupted, but the moves have brought the investigation to a virtual halt.

Local media have reported that arrest warrants for 45 people, including the prime minister's son, have been lifted by newly-appointed prosecutors.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Nick Tattersall)

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