* Officials at BDDK, TIB and editors in state media removed
* Experts say government aiming to block further leaks
* Government official signals removals to continue
* Several thousand people in three big cities protest
(Updates with protests)
By Humeyra Pamuk
ANKARA, Jan 18 Turkey has extended a purge of
official bodies to the banking and telecoms regulators and state
TV, firing dozens of executives in moves that appear to broaden
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's backlash against a corruption
The authorities have already reassigned thousands of police
officers and about 20 prosecutors, and fired some state
television officials in response to the corruption
investigation, the biggest challenge to Erdogan's 11-year rule.
Investigators are believed to have been looking into
allegations of corruption and bribery involving trade in gold
with Iran and big real estate projects, although full details of
their charges have not been made public.
The combative prime minister says the investigations, which
began a month ago with arrests of high profile figures including
the sons of three of his cabinet ministers, are part of an
attempted "judicial coup".
His opponents say they fear a purge of official bodies will
destroy the independence of the judiciary, police and media.
"It's like reformatting a computer. They are changing the
whole system and people in various positions to protect the
government," said Akin Unver, assistant professor of
International Relations in Istanbul-based Kadir Has University.
Among dozens of officials dismissed in the latest sackings,
Turkish media reported on Saturday that the deputy head of the
banking watchdog BDDK and two department heads had been removed.
Five department chiefs were fired at the Telecommunications
Directorate (TIB), a body that carries out electronic
surveillance as well as serving as telecoms regulator, and a
dozen people were fired at Turkey's state channel TRT, including
department heads and senior news editors.
A government official said the firings were carried out for
"the benefit of the public" and more could come: "Right now we
are working on this issue and if we identify cases problematic
to the public's benefit, more dismissals could be considered."
Pictures of money-counting machines and reports of cash
stacked in the homes of people linked to the graft probe have
caused uproar among the Turkish public.
Unver said the aim of the purge at the telecommunications
watchdog could be to prevent further videos and pictures being
published on the Internet.
"They are seeking a monolithic structure over the Internet,"
Several thousand people took to the streets in Turkey's
biggest three cities on Saturday demonstrating against a
government-led draft bill to increase controls over the
The bill would give the courts the power to rule on removing
online material that "violates individual rights", an article
that opponents say is murky and could lead to the arbitrary
closure of websites.
In Istanbul's Taksim Square, where police fired teargas and
water cannon to disperse the crowd, protesters called for the
government to resign. Some chanted: "There are thieves around,"
referring to the corruption allegations.
SEIZURE OF ASSETS
Erdogan has suggested the graft inquiry, which has led to
the resignation of three cabinet ministers and detention of
businessmen close to the government, is an attempt to undermine
his rule by Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based cleric with influence
among the police and judiciary.
Earlier in the week the government reassigned twenty
high-profile prosecutors, stepping up the purge of the
Many of the people who have been fired are believed to be
associated with the cleric's Hizmet movement, which claims more
than a million followers and runs schools and charities
Gulen's lawyer says the cleric has nothing to do with the
graft investigations, and his followers say they are victims of
a witch hunt.
In a separate move denounced by the opposition as an attempt
to target it, Turkish authorities have seized the assets of
Mustafa Sarigul, the main opposition CHP party's mayoral
candidate for Istanbul.
The state Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) said it
seized Sarigul's assets after he and his business partners
failed to repay a loan dating back to 1998.
Sarigul denied he had an outstanding debt, describing the
move as "a provocation".
"I have not received one single letter from TMSF in 16
years... Those who have lost the trust of the people and carried
out this political attack on me will get the answer at the
ballot box on March 30," he said, referring to local elections.
Erdogan, who has presided over an extended economic boom
that has transformed Turkey and lifted millions of people from
poverty, remains the country's most popular politician.
He and his moderate Islamist AK Party have long battled for
influence against the secularist military establishment that
dominated Turkey over the past century. Conflicts with the
judiciary, police and Gulen followers add to his list of
It is still not clear what effect the crisis will have on
Erdogan's political fortunes ahead of local elections
approaching in March.
Last year saw mass street demonstrations among Turks who
accuse the prime minister of authoritarianism, but those
protests did little to undermine Erdogan's support among his
conservative base of followers.
(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Mert Ozkan in Ankara,
Ayla Jean Yackley in Istanbul, Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk;
Editing by Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)