Protests over Turkey's seizure of empire linked to Erdogan foe

Dilay Gundogan

Istanbul (AFP) - Turkish police on Tuesday fired tear gas to disperse people protesting against the seizure of a conglomerate linked to a US-exiled preacher regarded as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's nemesis.

An Ankara court on Monday appointed a board of trustees to manage the Koza-Ipek Group, effectively seizing its 21 companies, including its media operations, as part of a crackdown on followers of Fethullah Gulen, who is accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

The move, which comes shortly before Sunday's election, has raised US concern and triggered demonstrations in both Ankara and Istanbul.

A fight broke out when the trustees tried to enter the group's headquarters in Ankara on Tuesday, prompting police to fire tear gas at dozens of demonstrators outside the compound, state-run Anatolia news agency said.

"We will not be silenced," the crowds shouted.

Ankara chief prosecutor's office said in a statement the seizure was linked to an ongoing investigation into the conglomerate on suspicion of "terror financing", "terror propaganda" and other offences related to Koza-Ipek's support for Gulen's Hizmet (Service) movement.

Koza-Ipek CEO Akin Ipek denounced the move as "politically motivated", saying the government had failed to find any illegal activity during inspections of the company, whose businesses include media, energy and construction.

- 'A matter of concern' -

Ipek Media Group owns the Kanalturk and Bugun TV stations, the Bugun and Millet newspapers, and BGNNews.com website.

"When there is a reduction in the range of viewpoints available to citizens, especially before an election, it is a matter of concern," the US embassy in Ankara said in a tweet.

Media rights groups have expressed concern over a further decline in press freedom since Erdogan became president in August last year after more than a decade as premier.

International journalists have been arrested and deported, while about 20 are currently detained on a variety of charges.

One of Turkey's best known anti-government journalists was also attacked this month and a "terror propaganda" probe opened into his paper.

Dogan said that among the trustees appointed to manage the group's media companies were former executives of pro-government Turkuvaz Media Group and Kanal 7 television.

Turkish authorities have ramped up their campaign against Pennsylvania-based Gulen in recent months.

Police in September raided Koza-Ipek's media companies, briefly detaining six people including its CEO as part of a "terrorism probe" into the 74-year-old cleric.

Erdogan accuses Gulen of trying to topple him by persuading allies in Turkey's police and judiciary to launch a vast probe into government corruption in December 2013, which led to the resignation of four ministers.

Turkey's authorities responded by purging both the police force and judiciary of pro-Gulen elements and arresting news editors and businessmen.

A Turkish court last week approved an indictment accusing Gulen of trying to bring down Erdogan, charging him with "running a terrorist group" which launched the corruption probe into the president's inner circle.

Gulen is set to be tried in absentia on January 6.

The cleric, who left for the United States in 1999 to escape charges of anti-secular activities by the government of the day, denies the latest allegations.