Turkish court takes up case against ruling party (video)

(AFP) - Turkey's top court convened Monday to decide whether to put the Islamist-rooted ruling party on trial for anti-secular activity, in a case which threatens national stability and Ankara's bid to join the EU.

A court official told AFP the Constitutional Court was expected to announce its decision later in the day.

Turkey's chief prosecutor on March 14 asked the court to ban the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on charges of undermining the country's secular order and trying to replace it with an Islamist system.

Prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya also called for 71 officials, among them Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, to be barred from politics for five years.

Last week, a court-appointed rapporteur completed a technical study on the charges, paving the way for the 11-member tribunal to decide whether the indictment is admissible.

The trial will formally begin if the court -- which has banned more than 20 parties since the 1960s -- accepts the indictment. A verdict is expected to take up to six months.

The European Union has urged the judges to take Turkey's interests into consideration when making their decision, warning that the case could hit Ankara's drive to join the bloc.

"I hope the judges will consider Turkey's long-term interests... to be an important European democracy respecting all democratic principles of the EU," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said Saturday in Slovenia after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

"The EU accession negotiation framework says that in case of a serious breach of democratic principles in Turkey, the Commission is obliged to look at what ramifications this could have for negotiations," he said.

The prosecutor charges that the AKP, the moderate offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, is turning its religious rhetoric into action in a bid to establish an "Islamist-inspired" system.

The indictment cites moves such as the abolition of a ban on the Islamic headscarf in universities last month and a ban on alcohol in restaurants run by AKP municipalities as evidence of the party's ambitions.

The AKP, which says it had disawoved its roots and embraced secularism, has rejected the charges and slammed the case as a blow to democracy.

If the court bans the party and bars Erdogan, it could spell the end of a political force which won a re-election last year with nearly 47 percent of the vote, a rare feat in Turkish politics.

The AKP announced last week that it is working on a constitutional amendment to make bans on political parties more difficult, drawing criticism that it is seeking to circumvent checks in the system to save itself.

Legal experts are divided on whether such an amendment would help the AKP fight an eventual ban, some saying the constitution forbids parliament from debating or ruling on issues under judicial process.

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