Hearing held over controversial Urla villas in İzmir

The land where Erdogan’s villas are allegedly located in the Urla district of İzmir had been specified as a first-degree environmentally protected zone, based on a decision of the İzmir Regional Board of Protection of Cultural and Natural Assets stipulating that any building in this zone was illegal and to be considered unregistered. However, the classification of the land was changed to a third-degree environmentally protected zone after a report was submitted by an expert. Various NGOs took this matter to court, demanding that the expert report be invalidated.

The Ministry of Environment and Urbanization filed a complaint against the earlier local court decision. A hearing was held on Tuesday to discuss the ministry’s appeal, but the court did not give a verdict. The court will either ask for another expert examination or will decide on the merits of the case.

The Urla villas came to public attention early last year following the exposure of alleged graft in which senior government members were implicated. According to a phone conversation that was leaked to the media last year, businessman Mustafa Latif Topbas wanted to build eight villas near the village of Zeytineli in Urla, but was denied the permit, as the area was a first-degree environmentally protected zone. The businessman asked then-Prime Minister and current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for help to change the zone to a third-degree protected zone so that he could get the necessary permits. Erdogan apparently confirmed on the phone that he would help. The prosecutors, after analyzing other recorded conversations, found that Erdogan may have received two villas in return for the favor.

The Cumhuriyet daily previously reported that Topbas, with Erdogan’s full support, found “suitable” academics who would issue an environmental impact report (CED) that would change the first-degree protected zone in Urla to third-degree. Topbas allegedly asked his adviser, Oguzhan Boyacı, to resolve the issue. Boyacı reportedly convinced five academics to issue the report after Topbas bribed them with a total of TL 130,000.

However, both Erdogan and Topbas have said the leaked recordings were doctored. Erdogan defended the villas, saying: “That land belongs to one of my good friends and it is not on public property. I have only gone there along with my family on brief vacations of three to five days each year over the past five years.”

Erdogan also claimed that the villas were 35-years-old and that neither he nor his family members have any share of ownership in them. However, satellite images revealed that the villas were mainly newly constructed. In addition, further conversations apparently between Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye and Topbas, also included in the leaked tape recordings, clearly suggested that the family was directly involved in the building plans and construction of the villas.