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Top Turkish Islamist Politician Charged with Corruption - 2002-06-06

A Turkish prosecutor is seeking to send the country's top Islamist politician to prison for up to five years on charges of corruption.

The prosecution is charging that Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Turkey's largest city, Istanbul, accumulated wealth through illicit means. It said that the increase in Mr. Erdogan's declared assets over the past four years was not, in its words, commensurate with his earnings as a politician.

According to the prosecution indictment, his wealth had increased by 256 billion Turkish liras - about $176,000 dollars between 1998 and 2001.

The prosecution is also demanding that Mr. Erdogan be banned from public office for life.

Turkish analysts say the legal proceedings against the Islamist leader are part of an ongoing campaign by Turkey's pro-secular establishment to exclude him from the political arena.

Recent opinion polls show that Mr. Erdogan's Ak party, the second largest opposition group in Turkey's 550 member legislature, would do well in parliamentary elections.

Neither Turkey's highly influential military leaders nor its pro-Western business community want the Islamists to come to power. They fear that under the Islamists Turkey would deviate from a crucial economic recovery program that is being supported by some $16 billion in International Monetary Fund loans.

Turkey's Western allies fear that Mr. Erdogan may not back the U.S.-led war against global terrorism and that he would try to weaken his country's strong military alliance with Israel.

Legal challenges are nothing new for Mr. Erdogan. He was forced to step down as mayor of Istanbul in 1998 over charges that he was inciting religious hatred. Mr. Erdogan served six months in prison over that charge. But opinion polls show that pressure from the state has only served to boost his popular support.