ISTANBUL // An alleged meeting between the son of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a Saudi businessman accused by the United States of being an Al Qaeda financier has intensified the scent of scandal and corruption enveloping the Turkish government.
According to findings by investigators leaked to Turkish media, Yasin Al Qadi is suspected of involvement in a scandal over the sale of land in an upmarket neighbourhood in Istanbul. His alleged meeting last year with Bilal Erdogan could implicate the prime minister’s family in the affair.
The allegations could not come at a worse time for Mr Erdogan, whose government is reeling from a series of corruption allegations.
Ugur Bayraktutan, a member of parliament for the opposition Republican People’s Party, last week launched an official query in parliament, asking Mr Erdogan whether his son Bilal had met with Yasin Al Qadi, 58, a Saudi national accused by the US of being an Al Qaeda supporter.
Under parliamentary rules, Mr Erdogan is obliged to answer the question within a month.
The accusations come after prosecutors last month ordered the arrests of dozens of people, including the sons of two of Mr Erdogan’s former ministers, suspected of being involved in a separate corruption scandal.
According to reports by Radikal, Milliyet and other Turkish newspapers, Mr Al Qadi was on a list of names due to be arrested in a second wave of arrests as part of investigations into several corruption cases. The reports said the arrests were cancelled after the prosecutor, Muammer Akkas, was taken off the investigations.
Bilal was included in a group of people that were to be questioned as “suspects”, said reports, quoting sources in the judiciary.
Several Turkish media have carried pictures said to show Mr Al Qadi talking with Bilal in the lobby of an Istanbul hotel in April. According to the Taraf newspaper, prosecutors suspect the Saudi businessman was involved in talks about the sale of a publicly-owned piece of land in the upscale Istanbul district of Etiler to private investors for US$460 million (Dh1.69 billion), less than half its market value.
Umut Oran, another CHP politician, in his own parliamentary query, asked Mr Erdogan whether Bilal acted as a mediator in efforts to sell the land to Mr Al Qadi and others. Istanbul’s mayor Kadir Topbas has denied that the area had been sold.
Last week Taraf claimed that Mr Al Qadi also entered Turkey illegally four times before being taken off the UN sanctions list in 2012, with the blessing of the Turkish government. He remains on a US terrorism blacklist.
Mr Bayraktutan, the MP, said Mr Al Qadi was protected by the prime minister’s security detail during those visits.
“Al Qadi was here illegally, there are pictures proving it,” Mr Bayraktutan told The National.
There has been no reaction by Mr Al Qadi to the allegations that he was involved in the land deal or that he entered Turkey illegally.
A property company in Istanbul named in news reports as being connected to Mr Al Qadi did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr Erdogan said foes of the government were trying to draw him into the corruption scandal by targeting members of his family. Bilal is one of two sons of the prime minister, who also has two daughters.
“They are aiming at my son, but it’s me they want to get,” the prime minister said on a recent visit to Pakistan.
But Ilter Turan, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said as yet there was “no satisfactory explanation of the relationship” between Bilal and Mr Al Qadi.
Mr Al Qadi is accused by US authorities of financing Al Qaeda, a charge he has in the past denied. His charitable Muwafaq foundation was identified by the US Treasury department as an Al Qaeda front and placed on a terror list in October 2001. The United Nations removed Mr Al Qadi from a separate list of people under sanctions because of Al Qaeda connections in October 2012.
The businessman has had strong commercial and political connections in Turkey for years. As early as 2006, Mr Erdogan publicly defended Mr Al Qadi against terrorism charges, telling a television interviewer that the businessman was “a charitable person who loves Turkey”.
A report by Forbes in 2008 alleged that Mr Al Qadi used his friendship with Mr Erdogan to avoid UN sanctions.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press