Turkish ruling party blocks airing of graft claims

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey's ruling party on Wednesday blocked an opposition attempt to air corruption allegations against the government less than two weeks before local elections that are seen as a referendum over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule.

The main opposition Republican People's Party, backed by two other parties, recalled legislators from recess for an extraordinary session to try and force parliament to read prosecutors' files against four former government ministers allegedly implicated in corruption and bribe-taking. Reading the papers would have put evidence into the public domain, exposing Erdogan to further embarrassment before the March 30 elections.

Despite protests from the opposition seats, Parliament Speaker Sadik Yakut, a member of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party, refused to allow a public reading, arguing that the corruption investigation was ongoing and therefore had to remain secret according to laws. The party, known as the AKP, was expected to propose the establishment of committees to investigate allegations privately. Opposition party legislator Akif Hamzacebi called the decision a "black stain" for Turkish democracy.

The corruption allegations have dealt a blow to Erdogan, damaging the devoutly religious and honest image that had helped him win three general elections since 2002. His party is expected to come out first from the elections but may lose some municipalities.

Erdogan has rejected allegations of corruption as a plot orchestrated by followers of a U.S.-based Muslim cleric to undermine his government.

Documents leaked on the Internet and purported to be the prosecutors' files accuse three ministers of facilitating an Iranian businessman's money transfers to Iran in return for multi-million dollar bribes. A fourth minister is accused of taking bribes in return for construction permits.

Three ministers were forced to resign in December after their sons were arrested in a police investigation and raids while a fourth was dismissed in a Cabinet re-shuffle. Erdogan's son was questioned as part of a second, stalled corruption investigation.

Erdogan's reputation has been hurt by a series of audio recordings of wiretapped telephone conversations leaked onto the Internet, including one in which he is allegedly heard telling his son to dispose of large amounts of money from a residence on the day of the police raids. Erdogan said that recording was fabricated.

The Associated Press could not verify the authenticity of the recordings or the documents. Turkey's transport minister said Wednesday most of the recordings were leaked from the United States. He did not elaborate.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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