ISTANBUL - Two top Turkish businessmen — Ersin Ozince, the chairman of the country's largest bank, and Aydin Dogan, a media tycoon — are among 47 people facing indictment for alleged gasoline smuggling, pro-government newspapers report. If convicted, they could be sentenced to decades in prison.
Both men are critics of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the cases against them are being condemned as politically motivated and part of an escalating crackdown on government opponents.
"We've heard extremely hostile messages from the executive [branch], or [news]papers very close to the executive [branch] in Turkey, and the judiciary immediately takes action on these indications sent by the executive branch," said political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
Turkey's government insists the judiciary is totally independent. However, Dogan's lawyers claimed in a statement that their client had already been cleared by a previous investigation in the nearly decade-old case.
Dogan's large network of newspapers and a TV channel is one of the last mainstream media groups critical of the president and his government. In 2009, Dogan was fined an unprecedented $3 billion after his newspapers accused Erdogan, who was then prime minister, of corruption.
Ozince, the chairman of IS Bank, is viewed as an outspoken critic of the president's economic policies.
Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based consultant with Global Source Partners, says the ties between IS Bank and the opposition Republican People's Party make Ozince a likely target for judicial investigation. But Yesilada warns that a probe targeting the bank, as well as Ozcine, could have severe financial consequences.
“If Ozince is arrested, then the IS Bankasi would come into play as well,” Yesilada said.
Yesilada rejects a push by one of Erdogan’s chief advisers for the government to take over IS Bankasi, saying “… this would have a very significant impact on financial markets, and would lead to a significant depreciation of TL [Turkish lira] and a large exodus of foreign investors from Turkey. Financial investors won't think any other company is safe from the encroachment of the government."
During the past few months, the judiciary has seized a number of large companies, including a bank and media interests linked to the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, an Erdogan ally-turned-rival.
And earlier this week, several academics, lawyers and members of Turkey's main pro-Kurdish party were arrested on terrorism-related charges.
In response, Washington on Thursday called on the Turkish government to respect democratic values, the rule of law and media freedom.