Turkish mayors who are currently probed by the Interior Ministry in connection with a human smuggling scheme have denied all charges against them.
The mayors are accused of issuing special state passports to Turkish citizens wanting to migrate to Europe in exchange for a fee so that they can visa-free travel.
The scandal first surfaced last week after it emerged that 43 out of 45 people who had traveled to Hannover, Germany, in September to attend an environmental workshop never returned home.
The workshop had been organized by the Yeşilyurt Municipality in the eastern province of Malatya, which is run by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and reportedly arranged for the attendees to be issued special Service Passports - grey passports - that are reserved for public servants or for others traveling on official business.
Malatya Governor's Office subsequently announced that an investigation was launched into the incident and four people were removed from office.
On April 19, an Interior Ministry statement said it had widened its investigation into the scandal to include six more municipalities which may have similarly helped smuggle people to Europe by arranging special passports under the pretext they would be used for city-arranged official travel, including to participate in folk dancing shows or other cultural programs.
The ministry also said it was suspending issuing the special state passports to those who are not public servants.
The municipalities currently probed by the ministry are Gömeç in northwest Balıkesir province, Gölbaşı in southeastern Adıyaman province, Yeşilova in Mediterranean Burdur province, Yerköy in Central Anatolian Yozgat province, Suruç in southeastern Şanlıurfa province and Korgan in northern Ordu province.
One of the municipalities being investigated is run by the AKP, one is run by the Good (İYİ) Party, one is run by a state-appointed trustee and the remaining three are by the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP).
Gömeç Mayor İrem Himam said that the CHP-run municipality sent a total of 34 people to a culture festival held in North Macedonia in February, adding that he was convinced by travel agents and a folk dance teacher to issue gray passports.
"They said that it would be easier to obtain visas if we issue gray passports. I was convinced," Himam told the daily Sözcü on April 20, noting that the group went in two separate cars.
"One of the cars returned and the other didn't. Even the driver... They tricked us," he said.
'Probe launched to cover up AKP-run municipalities' scandals'
Another municipality that's under investigation, the Yeşilova Municipality run by the CHP, issued passports for 387 Pamukkale University students in order for them to attend a festival in Rome in 2018. A total of 23 passports remain missing.
"These passports weren't returned. This doesn't mean they didn't return to Turkey," Yeşilova Mayor Mümtaz Şenel said.
Gölbaşı Mayor İskender Yıldırım also commented on the accusations, saying that 64 people were sent to a carnival in Greece in February by the CHP-run municipality last year and one person hasn't returned.
"Ours was an actual program. It wasn't imaginary like those of the others," Yıldırım said, in an apparent criticism of AKP-run municipalities.
Yerköy Mayor Ferhat Yılmaz denied all accusations, saying that all 40 of the musicians and dancers sent to a festival in Poland in July 2019 returned to Turkey.
Yılmaz also said that an investigation was launched into the İYİ Party-run municipality to "cover up the human smuggling scandal including AKP municipalities."