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Turkey's ruling AK party to be put on trial

Latest update : 2008-03-31

Turkey's Constitutional Court said on Monday it had agreed to take up a petition on whether to shut down the ruling AK Party for alleged anti-secular activity. (Report: C.Norris-Trent)

ANKARA, March 31 (Reuters) - Turkey's top court agreed on
Monday to hear a case to shut down the ruling party for Islamist
activity and bar the prime minister from office, heralding a
period of prolonged political and economic uncertainty in the EU
candidate state.

The decision by the Constitutional Court marks an escalation
of a long-running feud between the Islamist-rooted AK Party and
a powerful secular elite, including army generals, that accuses
AK of plotting to turn secular Turkey into an Iran-style

The AK Party, which has presided over strong economic growth
and democratic political reforms since sweeping to power in
2002, denies the charges it has an Islamist agenda and says the
lawsuit is an attack on Turkish democracy.

The petition, drawn up by the chief prosecutor of the Court
of Appeals, calls for 71 AK Party officials including Prime
Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul to be banned
from politics for five years.

After nearly five hours of deliberations, the Constitutional
Court's 11 judges decided in a rare unanimous ruling to take up
the case for closing the AK Party and for barring Erdogan and
dozens of other lawmakers from politics.

The court's deputy head, Osman Paksut, said in a short
televised statement that seven of the 11 judges voted in favour
of considering the call to bar President Gul from politics --
enough to bring him too within the scope of the investigation.

"The general feeling is that we're tilting towards closure
of the AK Party, meaning a chaotic political and economic
outlook," veteran commentator Mehmet Ali Birand told Reuters.

"I don't believe Erdogan will give up, he will fight to the
end. This is all-out war. It doesn't look good."

The lira currency and the Istanbul stock market, already
battered by the political tensions and by the global credit
crunch, weakened further after the court announcement.



Turkish business leaders have criticised the lawsuit as
harmful to stability and the European Union, which Turkey
aspires to join, has also expressed its concerns.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said at the weekend
that trying to shut the AK Party could jeopardise Ankara's EU
entry talks. He said the only grounds for considering a ban on a
political party were if it practised or advocated violence or
sought the violent overthrow of the democratic system.

On Monday, Rehn's spokeswoman said the Commission needed
more information before commenting on the court's decision.

The AK Party will now have to draw up its defence against
the allegations that it has engaged in Islamist activities aimed
at weakening the secular state.

The court case is likely to drag on for many months.

The AK Party, which won 47 percent of the vote in last
year's election, has said it may try to change the constitution
to make it more difficult to ban political parties and then seek
a referendum on the changes.

But opposition parties say such a move would be dangerously
provocative and possibly illegal and have vowed to resist this.

Some Turkish media have described the lawsuit as a "judicial
coup" against the AK Party after the secularists failed to block
the party's choice of Gul -- like Erdogan a former Islamist --
for the presidency last year.

Analysts say the government's decision to push for an easing
of a ban on female students wearing the Muslim headscarf at
university was what prompted the prosecutor's move.

Secularists see the headscarf as a symbol of political
Islam. The AK Party says easing the ban is a matter of religious
freedom and it claims strong public support for the move in a
country where about two thirds of women cover their heads.

The Constitutional Court is due to rule shortly on an appeal
from the secularist opposition Republican People's Party (CHP)
on whether lifting the headscarf ban violates the constitution.

The court could still throw out the case against the AK
Party, but analysts say Monday's unanimous verdict sounds an
ominous note for Erdogan's government.

Turkey has banned more than 20 political parties over the
years for alleged Islamist or Kurdish separatist activities.

The army, with broad public support, edged out a government
deemed too Islamist as recently as 1997, but the AK Party is
much more popular. The army has not commented on the lawsuit.

Date created : 2008-03-31