x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Turkish ruling party under investigation for wiretapping

Accusation that government tapped phone conversations of judiciary members triggers speculation that Justice and Development Party will be shut down.

ISTANBUL // A long-running power struggle between secular elites and the religiously conservative government in Turkey is back on the agenda, as accusations of illegal wiretappings and a controversial court decision have triggered speculations about possible new efforts by the judiciary to close down the ruling party.

Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, Turkey's top prosecutor, who last year failed to have the constitutional court ban the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has started a new investigation. It began last month and centres on accusations that the government ordered the tapping of telephone conversations of leading members of the judiciary. The new investigation could lead to another trial against the AKP, Mr Yalcinkaya told the Milliyet newspaper. "It is not something we want, but it is a procedure according to the task we have been given."

Turkey's judiciary is a bastion of hardline secularists, who regard the AKP of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, with suspicion because the party has roots in political Islam. The rise of a class of more observant Muslims under the AKP government in recent years has rattled Turkey's traditional secular elites and has led to tensions between the government on one side and secularist institutions such as the judiciary and the military on the other.

Last year, the constitutional court stopped short of banning the AKP, but said the governing party had become a "focal point of anti-secular activities", reflecting a claim by Mr Erdogan's opponents that he is trying to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. Now, government critics claim that the AKP has been eavesdropping on judges and prosecutors in an effort to intimidate them. Thousands of lawyers took to the streets in Istanbul last month to protest against what they said is government pressure on the judiciary.

Sadullah Ergin, the justice minister, said in yesterday's Hurriyet newspaper that although some wiretapping decisions were controversial, the government had acted within the law. He said 56 judges and prosecutors had been listened to, 36 of whom had been informed that no further investigations would be conducted against them. Mr Ergin did not say what would happen to the remaining 20. According to press reports, judges known for their anti-government positions are on the list of people whose telephones were tapped. One prominent name mentioned is that of Osman Kacmaz, a judge in Ankara who made headlines this year when he tried, and failed, to get Abdullah Gul, the current president and a former leading AKP politician, to stand trial for corruption despite tight constitutional restrictions for trials against a sitting head of state.

Mr Ergin's ministry is seeking the disbarment of Mr Kacmaz and others, but Mr Kacmaz has hit back. His court ordered searches in the government department charged with conducting the wiretappings to find out who was tapped. The latest search was conducted yesterday. Most of the wiretappings took place in the framework of investigations against Ergenekon, a suspected network of militant secularists that prosecutors say plotted to overthrow Mr Erdogan's government. Alarmed by the threat of Ergenekon, the government lashed out against suspected enemies everywhere, wrote Okay Gonensin, a columnist for the Vatan newspaper. "Some people in the state constantly listen to others," Gonensin wrote. "This is a battle for power."

Tensions between Mr Erdogan's government and the secularists in the judiciary were raised further by a decision by Turkey's highest administrative court, or Danistay, to cancel regulations that made it easier for students of religious high schools to enter university. The court ruled last week that Turkey's board of higher education, or YOK, had acted illegally when it introduced the new rules in July. The old system, introduced under pressure from the military in the late 1990s and changed by the board, had made it difficult for students from religious schools to enter universities, in an effort to keep those students, seen as potential Islamists, out of universities and, in extension, out of leading government positions. When YOK scrapped the provisions, government critics said the step was designed to make it easier for religious circles to infiltrate top ranks of the state. Now, the Danistay has annulled the board decision from July.

Mr Erdogan, a former student of a religious high school, said the court had political rather than legal motives. "This is a totally ideological decision," the prime minister said. The pro-government press reported that the Danistay had contradicted one of its own rulings in which it said that it had no power to interfere in YOK decisions. The YOK president, Yusuf Ziya Ozcan, said his board would appeal against the court ruling because he could see no legal base on which it could have been founded.

With the debate triggered by the Danistay ruling, the confrontation between the government and secularists who regard it as their task to stop the further advance of what they see as an Islamist force is back in full swing. Many newspaper commentators said the court had put ideological considerations over the basic principle of equality in education. But critics of the government say Mr Erdogan's latest comment about the Danistay ruling showed what the prime minister was really after. For Mr Erdogan, "the law should not have been independent from religious rules, and the highest control institution of this law should have been the ulema", or community of Islamic legal scholars, Ali Sirmen, a columnist for the secularist daily Cumhuriyet, wrote yesterday.

tseibert@thenational.ae