In Istanbul, AKP quietly funding conservative foundations

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has prepared a report detailing its expenditure on donations to civil society and charitable organisations, revealing that in the last two years millions of dollars have gone to foundations with close government ties.

The report, details of which were published in a news piece by left-wing daily Sözcü on Monday, reveals that Istanbul spent almost 848 million lira ($151 million) to support foundations, associations, and schools during 2017 and 2018, with the largest share (74.3 million lira, or $14 million) going to the Turkey Youth Foundation, TUGVA.

“TUGVA Turkey Youth Foundation is a new-generation youth foundation which was founded to raise a generation that will always be on the side of justice, defending everything that is good and beautiful in the world,” says the foundation’s English-language website.

This may seem a lofty aim, but TUGVA has connections in lofty places: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan sits on TUGVA’s High Advisory Board.

Another report of favourable treatment toward TUGVA emerged in 2017, when it was discovered that the foundation was paying just 120 lira per month to rent a building in İzmit, northwest Turkey. The previous renters, Turkey’s state Social Security Institution, had paid 35 times that amount.

The foundation is known to have a markedly religious slant, and reports that classes of children had been taught by men wearing the cloaks common among certain Muslim orders caused a stir among Turkey’s secularist citizens last year.

Bilal Erdoğan is also a trustee committee member of Okçular (Archers) Foundation, which the report revealed had received the sixth highest amount of financial support.

Okçular Foundation, which aims to promote traditional archery in Turkey and train competitive archers, received 16.6 million ($3.1 million) from Istanbul municipality in the 2017-2018 period. Around a quarter of that was reportedly transferred to the foundation under a header that read simply “project.”

The foundation that received the second greatest support from the municipality was TÜRGEV, another foundation whose stated aim is to support youths and students in Turkey, which it does mainly through its network of dormitories.

TÜRGEV, which the report says received 51.6 million lira from the Istanbul municipality, boasts the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) mayor of Istanbul, Mevlüt Uysal, among its directors.

TÜRGEV was also formerly directed by Bilal Erdoğan, and in December 2013 a series of leaks alleged he had been involved in large scale corruption at the foundation, which the reports said had received sizable donations that went straight to the president’s son.

The investigation into the corruption charges abruptly stopped in 2014, after the AKP government transferred prosecutors and judges involved in the graft probe. The AKP government said these had been transferred due to their links to an outlawed religious organisation, the Gülen movement.

The Aziz Mahmud Hüdayi Foundation, another religious organisation that provides housing to students, received around $3 million in 2017-2018. It is chaired by Ahmet Hamdi Topbaş, another figure known for his close links to President Erdoğan.

Topbaş was one of the well-known Turkish names found in the Panama Papers, which discovered that donations gathered by the foundation had been transferred to Swiss accounts, and discovered two offshore shell companies registered to the Topbaş family.

Another of the well-funded foundations on the list, Ensar, provides religious education and accommodation for Turkish students.

Ensar is another foundation favoured by the AKP government, which has enlisted it to set the curriculum and teach thousands of religious education classes.

The foundation was involved in a child abuse scandal in 2016, when a teacher in its employ was charged with the sexual abuse of 45 young children who had been staying in its accommodation.

Tarık Balyalı, a councillor for the secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told Sözcü that the report on funding for foundations had not been presented to him or colleagues from his party.

Balyalı said the government had engaged charitable foundations focusing on education as a way to bypass the Ministry of Education and give Turkey’s education system a more religious bent.