ANKARA (Reuters) - A Turkish parliamentary commission voted on Monday not to commit for trial four former ministers accused in a corruption investigation, effectively backing President Tayyip Erdogan after a scandal that rattled his inner circle.
Erdogan has cast the corruption scandal, which erupted in December 2013 when he was prime minister, as a plot to unseat him by his political enemies.
The affair led to the resignation of the ministers of the economy, the interior and urbanization, while European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis lost his post in a subsequent reshuffle. All four have denied wrongdoing.
The 14-member parliamentary commission, including nine members of Erdogan’s ruling AK Party, was set up in May to study prosecutors’ files alleging wrongdoing by the four ex-ministers.
A member of the commission from Turkey’s main opposition party CHP branded the decision not to send the ministers to the Supreme Court for trial as a cover-up.
“We’ve witnessed today in parliament how the biggest corruption scandal in Turkey’s history has been covered up on the orders of the AK Party and the president. The outcome is saddening,” CHP deputy Levent Gok told reporters.
Erdogan portrayed the corruption scandal, which posed one of the biggest challenges to his more than decade-long leadership, as a coup attempt orchestrated by his former ally, U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, to undermine his rule.
He reacted with a purge of the state apparatus, reassigning thousands of police and hundreds of judges and prosecutors deemed loyal to Gulen, in what his supporters said was a cleansing of the cleric’s influence.
Speaking over the weekend, Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu questioned the impartiality of the Supreme Court, highlighting the tension between government and the judiciary.
“The AK Party will clean up the its own rotten ones, with its own values. Nobody should doubt this. But it will not submit itself to a system with ill intentions,” he said in an interview with the Haberturk newspaper.
Ankara’s Western allies have reacted with alarm to what they see as signs of erosion of the rule of law, with four prosecutors who initiated the corruption investigation suspended last month, cases dropped and government influence over the judiciary tightened.
The commission’s decision must be debated by Jan. 30 by the parliament in full session, which will have the final say on whether the ministers are tried in the Supreme Court.
Turkey’s immunity rules mean they can only face trial if parliament, where the AK Party has a large majority, agrees.
Writing by Jonny Hogg; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Ralph Boulton