Police purge undermines Turkish security operations, sacked officers say

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Yakup Saygili ranked among Turkey’s top police commanders until he launched anti-graft raids that touched on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s circle. Now he sits at home, victim of a purge he says has undermined specialist units’ ability to tackle a growing terrorist threat spilling from the Middle East.

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara May 20, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

“I have two girls. I take them to school, the rest of my time, I’m working on my defense,” said Saygili, an expert in electronic surveillance, security and anti-corruption operations - and head of the financial crimes unit until dismissed over the December raids.

“I’ve drifted apart from some of the people I know because they fear if they somehow get in touch with me they’ll be reassigned or investigated,” he said.

Erdogan ordered a purge of police and judiciary he said had been infiltrated by “treasonous” elements seeking to topple him with fabricated graft allegations. The dismissals turned into what appeared to be a reckoning with an islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who had built great influence in state bodies.

Turkey’s national police declined to provide information to e-mailed questions regarding the scale of the purge operation and whether it undermined the police force. A government official also declined to comment.

“December 17 was not a coup attempt against the government,” said Saygili, in reference to raids that targeted the sons of four cabinet ministers and businessmen close to Erdogan. “It was the termination of a judicial investigation.

“They say we collected evidence illegally. It was 100 percent legal according to Turkish and international law.”

Saygili, 41, denies any allegiance to Gulen, as do the other serving and dismissed officials interviewed by Reuters. The cleric, for his part, says he had nothing to do with the police operation.

The sons of four ministers were arrested in the December raids along with a businessman close to Erdogan. Three ministers resigned and one lost his post in a reshuffle. All four denied any wrongdoing. Prosecutors threw out cases against 60 suspects in May, including the son of one of the ex-ministers.

Serving and dismissed officers interviewed by Reuters said the purge following the raids hit the financial, organized crime, smuggling and anti-terrorism units. Thousands of officers were dismissed or reassigned to other tasks, including traffic duty, they said.

Two senior serving officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said specialist units had suffered as inexperienced staff replace “purged” officers.

“The newcomers don’t have the capacity to work in those units,” said a police chief, who is currently heading a department in a provincial force. “They either worked in other departments previously or in police stations.”

Another high-ranking officer - suspended from his job - said some investigations into terrorism and financial and organized crime had ground to a halt.

Saygili said all 402 officers in the Istanbul financial crimes unit were reassigned, 12 suspended and seven later dismissed. Around 15,000 officers in total were reassigned, suspended or dismissed throughout the country, he said.

Turkey’s national police force and a government official declined comment.

More than 2500 judges and prosecutors were also replaced, according to a list on the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors web site.

One suspended police chief, who declined to be identified as he was still a civil servant, said Islamist militants fighting in Iraq and Syria posed a growing threat to Turkey that a weakened police force was ill equipped to counter.

“Especially in counter-terrorism, we’re entering a period of weakness which cannot be easily repaired over years,” he said.

Turkey’s vulnerability became the more evident when the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) rebel group, swiftly seizing territory in northern Iraq last month, took 80 Turks hostage in the city of Mosul. The group, later renaming itself the Islamic State, declared a caliphate that implicitly staked claims to Turkish territory.

“ISIL definitely has cells operating in Turkey...They say they will conquer Istanbul. That’s not physically possible but they can conduct symbolic acts,” said Mehmet Yegin, a security expert at Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation. “There’s a risk.”

Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Editing by Ralph Boulton and Janet McBride