PARIS — About 350 police officers in Ankara, the Turkish capital, were removed from their posts overnight, Turkish news outlets reported Tuesday, the largest single purge of the police force since a corruption investigation plunged the government into crisis last month.
The dismissals were seen by analysts in Turkey as part of a continuing effort by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to marginalize those it believes are driving the investigation. The government has already dismissed more than a dozen high-ranking police officials, prompting accusations of interference in the judicial process.
The intervention in the ranks of law enforcement for what appear to be political motives, analysts said, underlines Erdogan’s encroaching authoritarianism after nearly a decade in power and his sense of panic ahead of pivotal local elections in March.
Once a darling of the West committed to linking Turkey’s future to the European Union, Erdogan has since sought to fashion Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East, while the EU’s influence in Turkey has waned.
“This is a panic attack by a government acting in haste to prevent further corruption probes,” Kadri Gursel, a columnist for Milliyet, a daily Turkish newspaper, said in an interview. “By law, the government has no jurisdiction to remove judges or prosecutors, so it is cracking down on the police force, which falls under its authority.”
The reshuffle affected at least 80 directors and other senior officers in the intelligence, organized crime, fiscal crime, and cybercrime units of Ankara’s police force. Among those reassigned was Mahmut Azmaz, who led the antiriot police division that critics accused of using excessive force during antigovernment protests in June.
The removed officers were reassigned to traffic police departments and district police stations, and about 250 replacement officers, mostly from outside Ankara, have been appointed to take their place, the broadcaster NTV reported.
The corruption inquiry, focused on Cabinet ministers’ sons, municipal workers, and a major construction tycoon with links to Erdogan, has already prompted the resignation of three Cabinet ministers and spurred a Cabinet reshuffle. At the center of the inquiry are allegations that officials accepted bribes to bend zoning rules.
The investigation, the subject of daily reports in Turkish newspapers, has captured the public imagination in a country fascinated by real or imagined conspiracies. Turks have been riveted by lurid details and murky clues, like photographs of piles of cash in the bedroom of one minister’s home and reports that the chief executive of a state-owned bank had $4.5 million in cash stored in shoe boxes.
Erdogan’s government has condemned the inquiry as a politically motivated plot against his government by a “criminal gang” within the state, and Erdogan has warned that those seeking to ensnare him will fail.
The investigation has been attributed by government allies, fairly or not, to Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive and powerful Muslim preacher who lives in Pennsylvania.
Gulen has millions of followers, including powerful sympathizers within Turkey’s police and judiciary. Once an ally of Erdogan’s, Gulen appears to have had a recent falling out with the prime minister that analysts say is reverberating in Turkish politics.