By James M. Dorsey
The opening of a court case against Turkish soccer star Hakan Sukur on charges of insulting the president takes Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s autocratic ambitions back to their origins: an Islamist power struggle with exiled preacher Fethullalh Gulen that erupted five years ago on the pitch.
A soccer player-turned-politician who in 2011 was elected to parliament as a representative of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Mr. Sukur stands accused of asserting in February 2015 that the president was guilty of theft.
Mr. Sukur, who sided with Mr. Gulen in his dispute with Mr. Erdogan, was referring to charges in 2013 of corruption against Cabinet ministers, the director of a state bank and members of the president’s family by pro-Gulen prosecutors that were at least partly related to Iran sanctions busting. The charges rocked Turkey at the time.
Mr. Sukur may well be sentenced as many others have in a Turkey that is being subjected to Mr. Erdogan’s will through the curtailing of individual freedoms and the politics of fear – a private university fired a communications professor this week for mocking the president in class – but can seek comfort in the fact that legal proceedings in the United States could reopen the corruption charges.
Mr. Erdogan responded to the corruption charges by accusing Mr. Gulen, who heads one of the world’s largest and wealthiest Islamist movements, of attempting to stage a coup and build a parallel state in Turkey. The president effectively squashed the investigation of the corruption charges by dismissing or transferring thousands of members of the judiciary and police, both institutions that were viewed as bulwarks of support for the preacher. Some alleged pro-Gulen members of the judiciary and police were accused of conspiracy and terrorism.
The corruption charges constituted a sequence in the power struggle that first erupted in 2011 with a massive match fixing scandal, the worst in Turkish soccer history, in which the two Islamist leaders battled for control of storied Istanbul club, Fenerbahce SK, the political crown jewel in Turkish soccer.
At the centre of the scandal was Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim, one of 93 soccer officials and players accused of match fixing. Political control of Fenerbahce potentially paves the way for support of millions of the club’s fans. Mr. Erdogan, who at the time was still prime minister. ensured legislation that shielded the club from relegation and reduced penalties for match fixing. Mr. Yildirim was initially sentenced to six years in prison but acquitted last year in a retrial.
Turkish authorities detained 38 people, including former police chiefs, lawyers and journalists, in April in a series of police raids on suspicion of framing Mr. Yildirim as well as other Fenerbahce players and directors as part of a continued crackdown on alleged followers of Mr. Gulen.
Police issued at the time warrants for the arrest of 64 people suspected of involvement in the alleged plot against Fenerbahce. State-run Anadolu News Agency reported that the suspects could be charged with forming and belonging to a terror organization and conducting illegal wiretaps.
While Mr. Erdogan may have believed that he had put the corruption scandal to bed, he risks the case being reopened with the arrest in Miami earlier this year of Turkish businessman and gold trader Reza Zarrab on charges of having helped Iran circumvent US and international sanctions against Iran.
The US investigation has laid bare details of Mr. Zarrab’s links to senior Turkish officials, including some of those that originally had figured in the 2013 corruption scandal. US prosecutors allege that Mr. Zarrab paid tens of millions of dollars in bribes to the three ministers and the director of Halkbank, the state bank, that had been named in the scandal. The prosecutors further assert that Mr. Zarrab made a $5.5 million donation to a charity established by Mr. Erdogan’s wife.
Turkish prosecutors dropped similar charges against Mr. Zarrab as part of the squashing of Turkish proceedings. Mr. Zarrab was subsequently honoured with an award for being one of Turkey’s top exporters. US prosecutors said their evidence supported the original Turkish charges against Mr. Zarrab.
The threat to Mr. Erdogan is that Mr. Zarrab may want to cooperate with US prosecutors in an effort to reduce the chance of him spending up to 75 years in prison if he were to be convicted in a US court. That in turn could lead to legal proceeding against associates of Mr. Erdogan in US courts as well as sanctions against Turkish banks complicit in Iranian sanction busting. Halkbank shares on the Istanbul stock exchange have already taken a hit in anticipation of a possible plea bargain by Mr. Zarrab.
Mr. Sukur, following in the footsteps of Mr. Gulen, has moved to the United States. Concerned that he may not get a fair hearing by a judiciary that has been politicized and legislation that is designed to grant Mr. Erdogan immunity from criticism, Mr. Sukur has said he would be willing to testify via videoconference. Mr. Sukur, Turkey’s most prolific striker and the player who scored the world’s fastest goal, could be sentenced to up to four years in prison.
Mr. Erdogan initially dismissed Mr. Zarrab’s arrest as being irrelevant to Turkish interests. That could prove to be a premature assessment. The potential fallout of Mr. Zarrab’s case would cast the defamation charges against Mr. Sukur in a very different light. Combined the two cases could create a situation in which Mr. Erdogan’s squashing of attempts at transparency and accountability backfire and come to haunt his grip on power.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a just published book with the same title.