ISTANBUL — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tightened his grip Wednesday on the judiciary and the Internet in an effort to tamp down a corruption scandal that’s rattled his government and now appears to implicate his immediate family and him.
Evidence mounted that a series of audio recordings in which Erdogan can be heard instructing his son, Bilal, to get rid of enormous sums of money are authentic, with the government firing two senior officials at the state scientific agency responsible for the security of encrypted telephones and a U.S.-based expert on encrypted communications, after examining the recordings, telling McClatchy that the recordings appear to be genuine.
Erdogan on Tuesday called the five purported conversations an “immoral montage” that had been “dubbed.” But he acknowledged that even his secure telephone had been tapped.
The only apparent “montage” was combining the five different conversations into one audio file, said Joshua Marpet, a U.S.-based cyber analyst who has testified in court on the validity of computer evidence in other Turkish criminal cases. He said there was no sign that the individual conversations had been edited.
“If it’s fake, it’s of a sophistication that I haven’t seen,” he said.
The purported telephone conversations took place over a 26-hour period, beginning on the morning of Dec. 17, when Turkish police launched raids on the houses and offices of members of the Erdogan government, businessmen and their families.
“Whatever you have in the house, get rid of it, OK?” the prime minister can be heard telling Bilal in the opening conversation. Erdogan tells Bilal that his sister Sumeyye is on her way to help him and admonishes Bilal to tell others in the family also to get rid of cash, including Sumeyye’s husband, Bilal’s brother Burak, his uncle Mustafa Erdogan, and Erdogan’s brother-in-law, Berat Albayrak.
“It will be good if you completely ‘zero’ it,” the prime minster is heard saying in the second conversation, which took place later that morning. In the fourth conversation at 11:15 that night, Bilal says he had almost “zeroed” out the money, but that there were some 30 million euros (about $39 million) left. When his father asks why he didn’t transfer all the money to Mehmet Gur, a contractor who was building the Erdogan family villa, Bilal responds: because “it takes a lot of space.”
At different points, Erdogan can be heard warning Bilal not to use a regular telephone. In the final conversation on the morning of Dec. 18, after Bilal admits that the money had not been “zeroed out,” the prime minister again says Bilal should get rid of all the funds.
“OK, Dad, but we are probably being monitored at the moment,” Bilal said. His father replied: “Son, you’re being wiretapped,” to Bilal responds: “But they are monitoring us with cameras as well.”
Two more conversations were published on the Internet Wednesday night, one purporting to capture Erdogan and Bilal discussing how much money they should expect from a Turkish businessman, and the other recording two other businessmen discussing a payoff. More are expected, at least until the country votes in municipal elections March 31.
If the recordings don’t unsettle politics in this vital U.S. ally of 78 million people, Erdogan’s new laws very well could. The legislation now being rushed through Parliament is widely viewed as Erdogan’s effort to control the corruption probe.
Late Tuesday night, Parliament, where Erdogan’s Justice and Development party holds an absolute majority, gave final approval to a much-criticized bill that gives the government the right to block Internet content, subject to a court’s approval within three days, and gives it access to personal traffic data.
Then on Wednesday President Abdullah Gul approved a controversial bill that gives Erdogan’s justice minister control over an agency that appoints judges and prosecutors and conducts investigations.
Together with a bill now already approved by a parliamentary committee giving the state MIT intelligence service access to data held by the government, private institutions and courts upon the approval of one judge, the three bills appeared to be different ways to quash future corruption investigations.
“These three laws together look like the government trying to arm itself against its critics and its opponents, in a way that restricts human rights,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, the senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This is reactive legislation, being rushed through…It is occurring at the time of a massive political fight, and a corruption scandal the government is trying to bury.”
Even Gul, who’s a party ally of Erdogan, had deep misgivings on the law giving the government virtual control over the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors. He said in a statement he had found 15 provisions of the original bill that were unconstitutional, but that several of them were fixed before it came to his desk. Those remaining should be addressed by Turkey’s constitutional court, he said.
Among the most surprising revelations this week was that Erdogan’s conversations with his son – about where to stash the tens of millions of dollars in the homes of family members – were conducted on secure, government-issued telephones and were tapped by another agency of the government.
The eavesdropping now appears to have been facilitated by staff at the government’s Scientific and Technological Research Council, known as Tubitek. Fikri Isik, the minister of science, industry and technology, announced Wednesday that two department heads had been dismissed and that five employees responsible for the encrypted telephones had been suspended.
He noted that Erdogan had not requested an analysis of the alleged conversations with his son but said the institute was ready to do so if asked.
At McClatchy’s request, Marpet, the managing principal of Guarded Risk, a Wilmington, Del., cyber analytics firm, examined the conversations purported to be between Erdogan and his son.
Marpet, who has a background in law enforcement and has done work for the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia as well as testifying in Turkish criminal cases, said there were small sound “spikes” in the recording when one of the speakers mentioned a place name or an individual, but they could be annotations by whoever was monitoring the recording.
Marpet said the audio levels were consistent in each call. The speaker said to be Erdogan had a more “pixilated” or mechanical sounding voice, while the speaker said to be Bilal sounded clearer throughout. This could be because of differences in the phones – pro-government newspapers identified them as CryptoPhones – or in the way they were monitored. Marpet said it was possible that Erdogan’s phone was being intercepted electronically, while Bilal’s phone might have had a listening device planted in the receiver.
Based on the judgment of a Turkish-speaking McClatchy special correspondent that the two men’s voices sounded natural and that the question and answers flowed naturally, and the tone was appropriate for the conversation, “then I’m actually thinking it’s probably real,” Marpet said.
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