ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish authorities took over the management on Tuesday of 22 companies including newspapers and TV stations linked to a U.S.-based cleric and arch-enemy of President Tayyip Erdogan, intensifying a crackdown days ahead of an election.
The companies taken into state receivership include two newspapers and two television stations that have been critical of Erdogan’s rule, accusing him of growing authoritarianism ahead of the parliamentary election on Nov. 1.
A lawyer for parent company Koza Ipek Holding, Hakan Yildiz, confirmed raids had taken place on all 22 firms and that new executives were being installed. The state-run Anadolu news agency said police had detained 19 people in connection with the investigation, though this could not immediately be confirmed.
Erdogan has led a crackdown against once influential followers of preacher Fethullah Gulen, his former ally, after police and prosecutors seen as sympathetic to the cleric opened a corruption investigation into Erdogan’s inner circle in 2013.
A prosecutor is seeking a prison sentence of up to 34 years for Gulen, 74, on allegations that he ran a “parallel” structure within state institutions that sought to topple Erdogan, who has led Turkey, first as prime minister, then president, since 2003.
Last month, prosecutors began looking into whether Koza Ipek and its units had committed any financial irregularities by making payments to Gulen.
Company officials have denied any wrongdoing.
Shares in Koza companies plunged after the news of the raids, with mining firms Koza Altin down 11.7 percent and Koza Madencilik falling 12.3 percent. Ipek Enerji slumped 9.35 percent.
The Koza Ipek-owned dailies Bugun and Millet published front pages on Tuesday entirely in black with banner headlines that read: “A dark day for our democracy, for our freedom and for Turkey.”
Millet editor Deger Ozergun told Reuters that taking over a media company on such charges was banned under the constitution and had no precedent.
Turkey’s main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, speaking on broadcaster NTV, said the move against Koza Ipek showed “they can seize your property at any moment ... It means democracy and law are suspended”.
Members of Gulen’s Hizmet (Service) movement say they are victims of an unfair crackdown that includes barring satellite platforms from broadcasting Gulen-affiliated channels, the detentions of newspaper editors and the seizure earlier this year of Islamic lender Bank Asya.
On Monday, Robert Amsterdam, founding partner of London-based Amsterdam and Partners LLP, said his firm had been hired by the Turkish government “to expose allegedly unlawful conduct by the Gulen network worldwide”.
Additional reporting by Melih Aslan; Writing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Nick Tattersall and Gareth Jones