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Hundreds of police officers are reassigned in Turkey

About 350 police officers in Ankara, the Turkish capital, were removed from their posts overnight, Turkish news outlets reported on 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.

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The intervention in the ranks of law enforcement for what appear to be political motives, analysts said, underlines Mr. Erdogan's encroaching authoritarianism after nearly a decade in power as well as 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, Mr. Erdogan has since sought to fashion Turkey as a regional power in the Middle East, while the European Union's influence in Turkey has waned.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jan 7, 2014.
Yoshikau Tsuno | AFP | Getty Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jan 7, 2014.

"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 cyber crime units of Ankara's police force. Among those reassigned was Mahmut Azmaz, who led the anti-riot police division that critics accused of using excessive force during anti-government 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.

(Read more: Turkey's Erdogan defiant as three ministers quit over scandal)

The corruption inquiry, focused on cabinet ministers' sons, municipal workers and a major construction tycoon with links to Mr. 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.

Mr. Erdogan's government has condemned the inquiry as a politically motivated plot against his government by a "criminal gang" within the state, and Mr. Erdogan himself 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. Mr. Gulen has millions of followers, including powerful sympathizers within Turkey's police and judiciary. Once an ally of Mr. Erdogan's, Mr. Gulen appears to have had a recent falling-out with the prime minister that analysts say is reverberating in Turkish politics.

Observers have suggested that the inquiry was undertaken in retaliation for a government decision to close university preparatory schools, where the Gulen movement has recruited many of its followers. Mr. Gulen's sympathizers have begun a huge campaign on social networks like Twitter to protest the closing of the schools.

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Mr. Gulen's followers deny accusations that his adherents control state institutions. They say that his sympathizers have risen in the ranks of the police and the judiciary on the strength of their qualifications and talents.

Mr. Gulen, in a letter addressed to President Abdullah Gul and published over the weekend, suggested cooperating to end the conflict and insisted that he had no control over public servants.

But the battle shows little sign of abating.

Mr. Erdogan said over the weekend that the government was preparing a legal framework to allow the retrial of dozens of military officers who were recently convicted of plotting to overthrow the government. The trials are believed to have been spearheaded by sympathizers of Mr. Gulen, with the tacit approval of the government.

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The power of the military, the traditional upholder of Turkey's secular state, has been tamed under Mr. Erdogan, a religious conservative, with the help of Gulen sympathizers in the police and the judiciary. The clampdown on the military, which has staged coups against three previous governments, has been praised by many in Turkey for helping to cement civilian rule over a once untouchable force.

But legal experts contend that the legal process has been tainted by overzealousness, including accusations of fabricated evidence.

Analysts said Mr. Erdogan was now seeking to undermine the Gulen movement by distancing himself from prosecutions he had previously championed. "There is an effort to blame all the mistakes in a judicial process deemed unfair and unjust on the Gulen community," Mr. Gursel said. "The ultimate aim is to discredit them."

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