TURKEY – Turkey’s parliament passed a bill Saturday tightening government control over the judiciary, with lawmakers violently scuffling over the contested reforms — introduced amid a major graft scandal.
Fighting erupted overnight with fists flying between ruling party and opposition lawmakers as the bill was debated in a marathon 20-hour sitting.
Ali Ihsan Kokturk, a lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), had his nose bloodied in the brawl, while ruling party lawmaker Bayram Ozcelik’s finger was broken.
The opposition says the reform is a “government maneuver” to limit fallout from a graft probe that has ensnared top allies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The law is an apparent indicator of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) attempt to cover the corruption investigation by redesigning the judiciary,” CHP lawmaker Aykan Aydemir told reporters.
Parliament resumed debate of the bill Friday despite an uproar from opposition parties and the international community, who warned that it threatened the independence of the judiciary in the country, which is still hopeful of joining the European Union.
The reform package gives the justice ministry greater sway over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), an independent body responsible for appointing members of the judiciary.
It would change the makeup of the HSYK and give the justice minister the right to launch investigations into its members.
The measures were passed on Saturday morning with 210 votes in favor and 28 against.
CHP lawmaker Riza Turmen said his party would challenge the law — which still needs the president’s signature to come into force — before the Constitutional Court.
“The law is against the general spirit of the constitution that guarantees judicial independence,” he said, speaking after the vote.
“HSYK is key to judicial independence. An independent judiciary is only possible with an independent HSYK.”
Last month, President Abdullah Gul stepped in to resolve the deadlock by pushing for the judicial reforms to be passed as constitutional amendments, which would require cross-party support.
But the president’s initiative failed after disagreements between ruling and opposition party lawmakers.
The reforms come with Turkey immersed in political turmoil over the graft scandal that involves alleged bribery for construction projects as well as illegal trade with sanctions-hit Iran.
The inquiry into the allegations, launched on Dec. 17, marks the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s 11-year rule ahead of March local elections.
The Turkish strongman says the probe has been instigated by political rivals, including powerful U.S.-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen whose associates hold key positions in the police and the judiciary.
Erdogan has embarked on a series of retaliatory measures against the police, prosecution service and judiciary, which he believes are using the probe to undermine him, sacking thousands of police and prosecutors.
Turkey’s parliament triggered a storm of protest at home and abroad last week after it approved restrictions to the Internet seen by opponents as an attempt by Erdogan to stifle dissent. Some of Erdogan’s critics say the legislation is specifically aimed at preventing evidence of high-level corruption from being leaked online.