ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, embroiled in a scandal over leaked voice recordings, said on Wednesday his sensitive conversations with other world leaders may have been tapped as part of a campaign by his political enemies to discredit him.
Erdogan is locked in a power struggle with U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former ally he says is behind a stream of “fabricated” recordings aired on the Internet and purportedly revealing corruption in his inner circle.
Four more recordings have appeared on YouTube this week, part of what the prime minister sees as a campaign to sully his ruling center-right AK Party before local elections on March 30 and a presidential poll due later this year.
“Our phone calls with prime ministers, presidents are listened to,” Erdogan told a meeting with Turkish media representatives in comments broadcast live on television.
“I talked to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin last night. Only international intelligence agencies are curious about the content of such a phone call. But here in Turkey, a prosecutor can prepare an arbitrary indictment and tap into such a call.”
Government officials say Gulen’s Hizmet network has built covert influence in the police and judiciary over decades and has been illegally tapping thousands of telephones for years to concoct criminal cases against its enemies and try to influence government affairs. Gulen has denied the accusations.
The tapping of calls with foreign leaders could prove embarrassing for Turkey, recalling the furor caused by former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks suggesting the agency had monitored phone conversations of dozens of foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Erdogan - who has responded to the corruption scandal by reassigning thousands of police officers, asserting more government control of the courts and tightening Internet restrictions - suggested he expected more leaks, potentially of a more personal nature.
“I want to stress that there is not only wiretapping, but visuals are also being carried out,” he said.
“Taking pictures and videos of family relations, or relations outside the family, violates all privacy rules. And if these images give you the right to publish these materials on social media, I am sorry but I don’t accept such an Internet.”
One of the voice recordings, posted late on Monday, purports to be of Erdogan urging his justice minister to speed up a court case against Aydin Dogan, head of a family-run conglomerate seen as part of a secular elite which has had an often tense relationship with his Islamist-rooted government.
Dogan said in a statement on the front page of its newspaper Hurriyet that the conversation, if true, would mark a “clear interference in the judicial process” that it said risked shaking trust in the rule of law in Turkey.
Erdogan defended the conversation on Wednesday.
“What can be more natural than telling my justice minister to follow a case closely. The Capital Markets Board presented me with dangerous information ... It requires me to instruct to follow the case closely,” he said.
Erdogan and his aides have dismissed the leaks as part of a “montage”, snippets of conversations illegally wiretapped over a period of years and spliced together out of context to make them sound as incriminating as possible.
At a series of election rallies in recent days, Erdogan has rounded on the Gulen movement in front of crowds of fervent supporters, vowing to make them pay for what he has repeatedly cast as an “attempted coup”.
His core supporters in AK Party’s conservative Anatolian heartland show no sign of wavering, apparently reluctant to believe the allegations against Erdogan or seeing government graft as a small price to pay for a sharp rise in living standards he has overseen during his 11 years in office.
“Let them put together phone calls, do any dubbing or montage and release them. My people don’t give any credence to these tapes,” Erdogan said.
Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Gareth Jones