Turkish parliament erupts in fistfight over judicial reforms

Turkey's parliament passed a bill on Saturday tightening government control over the judiciary, amid a violent brawl that left one lawmaker hospitalised.

Fists and insults flew between ruling party and opposition lawmakers as the bill was debated in a marathon 20-hour sitting.

When an opposition deputy called Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan a dictator, deputies from the leader’s party shouted back "are you drunk?"

Ali Ihsan Kokturk, lawmaker from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), got a bloodied nose in the brawl, while ruling party lawmaker Bayram Ozcelik's finger was broken.

Opposition parties say the reform is a “government manoeuvre” aimed to stifle a graft investigation launched on Dec. 17 in which dozens of prominent business people, the sons of three cabinet ministers, and state officials were questioned.

"The government is in a great hurry, this shows how deep the corruption and bribe allegations are," Oktay Vural MP for the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) said.

210 for, 28 against

Parliament resumed debate of the bill Friday despite uproar from opposition parties and the international community who warned it threatened the independence of the judiciary in the European Union hopeful country.

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 make-up 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 favour 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 told AFP after the vote.

"HSYK is key to judicial independence. An independent judiciary is only possible with an independent HSYK."

Political turmoil

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.

Turkey has been in political turmoil since the graft scandal erupted, which saw the government reassign or dismiss thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors in what was widely seen as retaliation and a bid to impede investigations.

Details of the corruption allegations have not been made public, but are believed to relate to construction and real estate deals and Turkey’s gold trade with Iran, according to Turkish newspaper reports that cite prosecutors’ documents.

The inquiry into the allegations marks the biggest challenge yet to Erdogan's 11-year rule ahead of March local elections.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)