Turkey corruption

A Turkish protester holds up a placard reading "Only revolution can clear this corruption" as others chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul on Dec. 30 against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images / December 30, 2013)

A power struggle between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an exiled Muslim cleric sharpened Tuesday with the government purging 350 police officers involved in the anti-corruption sweeps that have netted figures close to Erdogan.

The firings and reassignments, mostly to less influential positions, failed to halt the raids targeting graft and bribery at top levels of government. Another law enforcement sweep of port and rail operations in five cities brought 25 more corruption suspects into custody, Turkish and foreign media reported from Ankara, the capital.

The arrests began in mid-December and have included the sons of three senior government ministers, bankers and business leaders with cozy connections to Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish initials AKP.

The sacking of senior police officers from Ankara's special task forces fighting financial crimes and smuggling was said to have been in punishment of law enforcement's failure to give the government any warning of the crackdown, the National Turk news website reported.

Since the corruption scandal broke in mid-December, at least 1,700 police officers and prosecutors have been fired or demoted, the Hurriyet newspaper reported.

In a parallel action, the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors announced its decision Tuesday to investigate the prosecutors behind the extensive graft inquiry, the newspaper said.

The investigation of those who launched the anti-corruption drive hauling in Erdogan cohorts was an apparent bow to the prime minister's claims that judicial authorities are acting at the direction of U.S.-based Muslim scholar Fethullah Gulen.

Gulen and his Hizmet, or Service,  movement were allied with Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party when the current government first came to power in 2002. But the two men have fallen out in recent years over differing policies toward the United States and Israel, and Erdogan's attempts to close down the private schools that are the centerpiece of Gulen's movement.

Erdogan has blamed the anti-corruption drive on a "state within a state," a reference to Gulen's global development empire directed from his sprawling compound in Saylorsburg, Pa.

In a letter sent to Turkish President Abdullah Gul in December and released Monday by the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper, Gulen denies attempting to manipulate the justice system.

"Purges, or more accurately massacres, are being carried out of civil servants who are fulfilling their duties defined by the law," Gulen said of the high-level arrests that have embarrassed the government and confronted Erdogan with his greatest challenge in 11 years in office.

The Dec. 22 letter also reportedly offered a truce, with Gulen saying he was confident his "friends will also prefer serenity" if Erdogan and his government cease their campaign of "black propaganda" against his worldwide operations.

"The fighting via probes and dismissals highlights the deepening conflict between the AKP and the Gulen movement, the followers of which are said to hold key positions inside the secret services, the police and the judiciary," Hurriyet Daily News observed.

The political conflict has worsened an economic downturn that began last spring with massive anti-government demonstrations against what opponents perceive as Erdogan's heavy hand in transforming Istanbul and other major Turkey cities.

Turkey has been one of the most stable and prosperous countries in the region for the last decade but has lately imperiled that performance with Erdogan's departure from reforms called for by the European Union to enhance government transparency and the rule of law, the Cihan news agency observed in a commentary Monday.

"It seems that he regrets reforming the judicial system, which gave prosecutors relative independence," Cihan said. "He is now trying to overturn those judicial reforms."

Erdogan managed to banish the army from politics with high-profile trials of alleged coup plotters, another reform he may be regretting, some media speculate, as his support is undermined by a year of turmoil and scandal.

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Twitter: @cjwilliamslat

carol.williams@latimes.com