* Gul hints will not block Internet, judiciary bills
* Laws have sparked fight in parliament, protests
* Opposition plans appeal to constitutional court
By Nick Tattersall
ISTANBUL, Feb 18 Turkey's president has
signalled he will approve new laws tightening controls over the
courts and the Internet, bolstering embattled Prime Minister
Tayyip Erdogan but deepening concerns about free speech and the
rule of law.
The two bills, passed by parliament this month and awaiting
President Abdullah Gul's approval, are seen by Erdogan's critics
as an authoritarian response to a corruption inquiry shaking his
government, a bid to stymie court cases and to stop leaks
The new law on the judiciary will give the government more
influence over the naming of judges and prosecutors, while the
Internet bill will enable the authorities to block access to web
pages within hours without a prior court order.
The moves by Turkey, which has been seeking membership of
the European Union for decades, have raised concern in Brussels,
which fears it is shifting further away from EU norms, and
unnerved investors in a country whose stability over the past
decade has been based on Erdogan's firm rule.
The government says the laws will further democracy by
taking back control of a judiciary it sees as in hock to a
powerful but unaccountable cleric bent on unseating Erdogan, and
by protecting individuals' privacy on the Internet.
Police fired teargas to disperse demonstrators protesting
against the Internet law in Istanbul this month, and
parliamentarians debating the judicial reforms came to blows on
Sunday, leaving one with a broken nose.
Erdogan's opponents have called on Gul, who co-founded the
ruling AK Party with him in 2001 but is generally seen as a more
conciliatory figure than the combative prime minister, to use
his powers to veto the bills. Speaking to reporters on a trip to
Hungary late on Monday, he gave little sign he would do so.
"As the president I cannot put myself in the position of the
constitutional court. But in a very general way, I can make my
objections concerning the points I see," he was quoted as saying
by the Hurriyet and Haberturk newspapers.
Gul pointed out he had raised concerns about the AK Party's
first draft of the judicial reform bill, which had since been
amended, and that the opposition had already indicated it would
in any case appeal to the constitutional court.
"That is our tradition. Presidents before me would say 'the
constitutional court decides on the subject of laws in which
there are arguments for and against'," he was quoted as saying.
Gul has also said there are "problems" with some elements of
the Internet law, which the country's communications minister
was quoted on Tuesday as saying may still be amended.
Gul has made little secret of his desire to return to
mainstream politics and is seen as a future leader of the AKP,
an ambition his critics say leaves him too wary of conflict with
Erdogan to act as an effective check on his power.
"Gul wants to serve as president for a second term and has
the desire to chair the AKP after Erdogan, so even if he does
not fully agree, he is approving controversial regulations from
the party," Turkish political analyst Atilla Yesilada said in a
The battle for control of the High Council of Judges and
Prosecutors (HSYK), which appoints senior members of the
judiciary, lies at the heart of a feud between Erdogan and
influential U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen.
Gulen, whose followers say they number in the millions, is
believed to have built up influence in the police and judiciary
over decades and leads a powerful worldwide Islamic movement
from a forested compound in the United States.
Erdogan blames Gulen, a former ally who helped cement AK
Party support over the past decade, for unleashing the graft
investigation, which he sees as an attempted "judicial coup"
meant to undermine him in the run-up to local and presidential
elections this year. The cleric denies any such role.
Gul is seen as enjoying more support from Gulen's network of
sympathisers, who view themselves as pro-democratic and
reformist, then Erdogan, whose views on issues from abortion to
alcohol they see as unnecessary interference in private life.
But Gul has also been critical of the cleric's influence in
state institutions in recent months, appearing to close ranks
with Erdogan and echoing the prime minister's warning that a
"state within the state" will not be tolerated.
In the eyes of Turkey's opposition, too weak in parliament
to stall AKP bills, that opens the way for Erdogan to impose an
increasingly authoritarian rule.
"If the president approves the HSYK law, the judiciary will
be bound completely to the government. The separation of powers
will be completely shelved," said Devlet Bahceli, head of the
opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
"I fear that Prime Minister Erdogan will sit at the top of
the judiciary as the chief judge."
(Additional reporting by Asli Kandemir and Daren Butler;
Editing by Robin Pomeroy)