Turkish court annuls part of constitutional reform

Turkish court annuls part of constitutional reform

Turkey's top court Wednesday annulled parts of a government-sponsored package of constitutional changes curbing the powers of the judiciary that critics say will tighten the government's hold on power, AFP reported.

The government criticized the court for exceeding its authority with the verdict, but nonetheless said the amendments were still a major reform despite the changes and would go to a referendum on September 12 as planned.

The package, which limits the powers of the fiercely secular judiciary and the army, was pushed through parliament in May by the ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and immediately challenged by the main opposition party at the Constitutional Court.

In its verdict, the court rejected a demand to scrap the whole of the amendment package, but annulled parts of amendments dealing with the court itself and a key judicial body which appoints judges and prosecutors, the court's president Hasim Kilic told reporters in Ankara.

The ruling gives top courts a wider choice in determining candidates to sit on the Constitutional Court and restricts the pool of those eligible to serve on the Higher Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), a body that has often clashed with the AKP, Kilic said.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the court had overstepped its authority by claiming the right to scrutinize the content of the amendments and not the manner in which they were approved in parliament.

"The court has made a mistake by judging the amendments on merit... This is not right," Ergin told reporters in Ankara.

"But the amendments, even with some phrases removed, constitute a serious reform to the constitution," Ergin said. "From now on, we are in the referendum process."

While Kilic said the amendments untouched by the court would go to a referendum, Ergin said the articles changed by the court would also be put to the vote in September in their edited form.

The AKP, the moderate off-shoot of a banned Islamist movement, says the changes to the constitution, the legacy of the 1980 military rule, will improve democratic standards and boost Ankara's bid to join the European Union.

The opposition charges that the AKP designed the package tighten its grip on power by extending government control over key judicial bodies, undermining the system of checks and balances and allowing it to move ahead with an alleged plan to introduce Islamic rule in the secular country.

Lack of support from opposition parties meant that the AKP failed to garner the two thirds parliamentary majority required for the package's outright adoption, opening the way for a public vote.

The country's top judges have also objected to the changes which they say encroach on the independence of the judiciary and violate the separation of powers.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) had petitioned the Constitutional Court to scrap the amendments arguing that they violated key principles on the rule of law, the separation of powers and the judiciary's independence.

In an initial reaction, a top CHP lawmaker, Muharrem Ince, said he was not personally satisfied with the verdict, but called for keeping the scrapped amendments out of the vote, the Anatolia news agency reported.

The constitutional amendment package limits the jurisdiction of military courts and allow civilian courts to try military personnel in peace time for coup attempts and offences related to national security and organised crime.

Another measure paves the way for the army chief and his top four aides to be tried at the Supreme Court.

The amendments also allow for the trial of the leaders of the 1980 coup, give civil servants the right to collective bargaining, but not the right to strike, and expand women's and children's rights.

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