Representatives for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party appeared in court to deny charges that the AKP is trying to replace the country's secular system with Sharia law. The prosecution is seeking to ban the party.
Turkey's Islamist-rooted ruling party Thursday defended itself in the country's highest court against charges that it had sought to undermine the secular system and should be closed down.
The case is the latest clash in a bitter struggle between secular forces and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won a decisive re-election victory last year despite a divisive campaign that focused on the party's alleged Islamist leanings.
Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek and senior AKP lawmaker Bekir Bozdag -- both of them lawyers -- made no statement as they arrived at the Constitutional Court at 0700 GMT to present their case in a closed session.
The court is to appoint a rapporteur to pen a non-binding recommendation on a verdict. The judges will then set a date to debate the case behind closed doors before making a ruling.
Chief Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya launched his case against the AKP in March, saying it should be banned for seeking to replace Turkey's secular system with Sharia law.
Yalcinkaya argued his case before the court on Tuesday and also asked the court to bar 71 party officials, including Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, from party politics for five years.
The AKP, which has its roots in a now banned Islamist movement, has rejected all the charges and argued that the case was politically motivated and "fictional".
"We never had a secret agenda...Upholding the unitary, secular and democratic state is a primary mission of the party," it said in written defence arguments filed in May and June. "There is no justifiable reason in this court case to sanction our party".
Analysts say the chances of the AKP being banned has increased since the Constitutional Court last month threw out a government-sponsored constitutional amendment lifting a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities.
The amendment, which the court said violates the principle of secularism, was one of the key pieces of evidence cited by Yalcinkaya as evidence of the AKP's assault on the separation of state and religion.
The constitution gives the court the option to cut treasury aid to a party it finds guilty, but analysts say the chances of the judges choosing a financial sanction over a ban for the AKP is weak.
The court has banned 24 parties -- among them AKP's predecessors -- since its establishment in 1963, but has never taken such a move against a governing party.
The AKP, whose electorate are mainly conservative Turks in rural areas with growing economic power, insists it has disowned its Islamist roots and embraced Turkey's bid to become a European Union member.
But it also maintains that rigid interpretations of secularism in Turkey breach religious freedoms.
Hardline secularists -- among them the army, the judiciary and academics -- argue that moves such as banning alcohol sales in restaurants run by AKP municipalities and attempts to promote Koranic courses, coupled with rhetoric in favour of broader religious freedoms, indicate a secret Islamist agenda.
The case against the AKP has been overshadowed by increasing tensions following a police operation against a shadowy anti-government grouping Tuesday, which saw 21 suspects, along them two retired generals, detained by police.
The mass-circulation Sabah daily said Thursday, citing documents seized in the operation, that the group was about to put into practice a plan to gradually destabilize the country and thus oust Erdogan's government.
Prosecutors have yet to issue an indictment against the group.
Date created : 2008-07-03