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Protests erupt in Turkey over corruption probe into Erdogan’s government

December 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to nearby Turkey, once a model of stability in the Middle East, where an exploding corruption scandal threatens the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner explains.

MARGARET WARNER: Tensions erupted in the streets of Istanbul this evening, as police blasted protesters with water cannon, tear gas and plastic bullets.

The crowd threw rocks and shouted “Catch the thief,” a cry aimed squarely at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the eye of a widening corruption probe. But, earlier today, the prime minister defiantly rejected the calls for his removal.

PRIME MINISTER RECEP ERDOGAN, Turkey (through interpreter): Let me be clear. If our nation tells us to leave, we will go. There’s no hesitation there, because that’s the office we respect. But when the people are telling us to stay, we won’t listen to someone who is telling us to go.

MARGARET WARNER: The controversy exploded 10 days ago, when police detained two dozen people, many with Erdogan party ties, in a 14-month-long corruption and bribery investigation.

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Officers raided the home of the CEO a major state-owned bank, discovering boxes of Turkish liras. The video got wide play on Turkish TV. It was a sudden blow to Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party, the AKP, who have ruled for 11 years.

Erdogan lashed back, charging that political foes, led by followers of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, and foreign powers were plotting to bring down the government.

RECEP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): Those who are receiving the support of financial circles and media cannot change the direction of this country.

MARGARET WARNER: But, eight days later, on Christmas Day, three cabinet ministers resigned after their sons were implicated in the investigation. Later that day, Erdogan replaced 10 ministers, but again denounced the investigation as conspiracy.

RECEP ERDOGAN (through interpreter): We are facing an attack against the Turkish people and the Turkish republic which is presented as a corruption probe.

MARGARET WARNER: His government also tried to head off the probe with a new decree forcing prosecutors to clear their efforts with their superiors. And last night, the prosecutor leading the probe charged interference and was removed hours later.

But, today, a Turkish court annulled the decree requiring high-level approval for all investigations. The new controversy comes on the heels of gigantic summertime protests against the government’s plans to raze Istanbul’s popular Gezi Park to make room for development. Both have taken an economic toll. Foreign investors are dumping Turkish bonds, and the Turkish lira has dropped dramatically.