New AKP gentry in Roma district

New AKP gentry in Roma district

ISTANBUL - Resignations and suspensions have brought attention to ethically questionable land purchases by ruling party politicians and people close to them in the municipality responsible for the urban transformation in Sulukule. Recent reports suggest political actors in Istanbul’s Fatih district are cashing in as local Roma residents are checked out.

Question marks have been unearthed amid the urban transformation project in Istanbul’s Sulukule neighborhood, where the mainly Roma minority homeowners are being replaced with people linked to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP.
To date, the ongoing 4-year-old project has seen half of all properties in the neighborhood change hands and many of the area’s Roma residents have been relocated to Housing Development Administration, or TOKİ, projects far from the city center and buried in debt, according to reports. Recent resignations from the AKP have raised questions concerning to motives of politicians involved in the project.

The Fatih Municipality told homeowners they would receive compensation of 500 Turkish Liras per square meter in payments made over five years. Fearing a major monetary loss, about half of the homeowners have sold their properties for little more than the municipality offered.

For the past three years, the adviser to Fatih Mayor and AKP member Mustafa Çiftçi and others have been mediating the sale of property deeds, some of which date back 300 years.

As part of the first stage of the urban transformation project, 339 houses will be built, with the houses being allocated to the landowners. The new landowners mostly purchased their properties in 2007 and 2008, it was reported.

Among landowners who were allocated houses is İsmet Büyükkılıç, the notary currently being investigated as part of the Lighthouse e.V. scandal, several Fatih Municipal Assembly members and religious sect leader Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu.

The Lighthouse e.V. scandal involved the collection of donations from Turks living in Germany and the use of the funds in Turkey for business purposes. A court in Frankfurt last September jailed three managers of the charity for embezzling 14.5 million euros. Several people based in Turkey, including several bureaucrats appointed by the AKP and businessmen close to the government, were implicated.

Büyükkılıç is currently suspended pending a trial over his involvement in the channeling of funds and it reports said he purchased his two Sulukule houses last July and August, just as the Lighthouse scandal was hitting the news.

Among the other property owners are the son of AKP deputy from Kayseri, AKP’s deputy mayor from the Istanbul district of Güngören, a former AKP Fatih branch member and several of his relatives, two officials from the Istanbul Water Department and several other lower level AKP members.

Fatih Municipal Assembly members from both the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and the AKP objected to the project, citing NGO objections and arguing that some people were illegally profiting from the transformation project. Municipal assembly members from the AKP Sibel Musaoğlu, Cemal Merdan and Kadir Özdemir were later disciplined by the party for breaking rank.

When it was discovered that the AKP’s Fatih branch’s founding member, Recep Karaoğlu, had purchased a property there and had succeeded in getting one of the new houses allocated to him, he was pressured to resign from the party for "unethical acts." In his letter of resignation, Karaoğlu said several other local AKP members had also purchased properties in Sulukule, demanding they resign, too.

Yakup Karaoğlu, a member of the Fatih Municipal Assembly, criticized the municipal business, saying most projects were done secretly. "We never knew what was happening in Sulukule. The mayor made a speech about the project, dismissing the residents saying, ’One percent are musicians while 47 percent have not even completed their primary education.’ He tried to say they were ignorant. True, compared to you, they may be ignorant, but you are sneaky. Half of the properties there have changed hands. Sulukule has become a very profitable area for some. What I worry about is when the project is complete and people find out who is living there, many will curse us," Karaoğlu said in a speech at to assembly late last year.

Yakup Karaoğlu resigned from the AKP last month.

The head of the Sulukule Roma Culture Development and Cooperation Association, Şükrü Pündük, said the residents heard of the project only through newspapers and that the association was founded in 2006 to campaign against the project. Locals were called into the municipality in groups of 12 to be told that the area would be demolished, he said.

Selling out of fear

"They told us our homes would be demolished and we would be paid 500 Turkish liras per square meter. Then people from outside the district started to arrive, offering us between 1,500 to 2,000 liras per square meter. People started to sell, fearing that they would be victimized," he said.

The urban transformation project was initiated by Istanbul’s Fatih Municipality soon after the 2004 local elections. The project includes demolishing mainly Roma-owned houses in the Neslişah and Hatice Sultan neighborhoods, which are together known as Sulukule, and replacing them with a modern housing project built by TOKİ and supported by the Istanbul Metropolitan and Fatih municipalities.

Demolitions in the neighborhood started in 2005 and are ongoing. Four trials are pending as a result of complaints filed by several nongovernmental organizations, including the Istanbul Chamber of Architects and the Chamber of City Planners.

UNESCO sent a delegation to the neighborhood in 2007 after a series of demonstrations and complaints against the historical neighborhood’s demolition, warning that Istanbul could be removed from the World Cultural Heritage list if major changes were not made to the project.
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