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US-based Erdogan critic goes on trial in Turkey on graft charges

Selahattin Sevi, Zaman Daily, AFP | Fethullah Gulen at his home in Pennsylvania in September 2013.

A US-based Turkish preacher who has emerged as an arch-enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on trial in absentia Wednesday along with several former police chiefs charged over the corruption allegations that hit the Turkish leader in 2013.


Fethullah Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan turned chief foe, was not present at the start of the proceedings in Istanbul, with Washington failing to grant Turkish requests for his extradition from his secluded compound in Pennsylvania.

He is being tried along with dozens of former police officers, including the former head of Istanbul police Yakup Saygili and the city's ex-deputy criminal police chief Kazim Aksoy, both of whom are said to have ordered the graft probe.

The pair have been held in detention since September 2014 and were both in court at the start of the trial.

A total of 69 people including Gulen are on trial, facing terms ranging from seven years to 330 years.

The judge at Istanbul's main courthouse opened the proceedings by conducting a roll call of the defendants and the plaintiffs, an AFP correspondent said.

Eight defendants, including Saygili and Aksoy, who had been remanded in custody were brought to the courthouse from the prison.

Aside from Gulen, the other suspects had been released from custody pending trial. But Gulen is the only suspect being tried in absentia.

'No concrete evidence'

The corruption allegations directly implicated some of Erdogan's inner circle, including his son Bilal. The government denied the claims, which it said came from Gulen and his acolytes in the judiciary and police.

Erdogan, his son Bilal, son-in-law Berat Albayrak and Turkey's spy chief Hakan Fidan are among the plaintiffs in the case, along with four former ministers who lost their jobs over the corruption allegations.

The top suspects are charged with plotting to topple the Turkish government with the graft allegations, as well as membership of a "terrorist group".

"There is no concrete evidence that my client has been involved in any violence, not a single document," Gulen's lawyer Nurullah Albayrak told AFP.

"The terms used by prosecutors such as' believed', 'thought', 'assumed' mean that the accusations are all based on assumptions. We have never seen such a murky investigation in the history of our country."

The scandal was seen as one of the biggest challenges to the dominance of then prime minister Erdogan. He survived the allegations, however, and went on to become president in August 2014.

Despite living outside of Turkey, Gulen built up huge influence in the country through allies in the police and judiciary, media and a vast network of cramming schools designed to make up for deficiencies in the state education system.

Ankara now accuses Gulen of running what it calls the Fethullahaci Terror Organisation/Parallel State Structure (FeTO/PDY) and seeking to overthrow the legitimate Turkish authorities.

Gulen supporters decry the accusations as ridiculous, saying all he leads is a more informal group known as Hizmet (Service).

"Hundreds of people's lives have been ruined just because they stepped on the feet of the government," said Murat Erdogan, lawyer for Yakup Saygili and Kazim Aksoy.

"It's such a shame that all these people who wouldn't even hurt an ant are being portrayed as a terrorists," he said.


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