ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish parliamentarians threw punches and water bottles during a debate on Saturday about government control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, as a feud over the ruling party’s handling of a corruption scandal intensified.
One MP leapt on a table and launched a flying kick as others wrestled and punched at each other, with document folders, plastic water bottles and even an iPad flying through the air, a Reuters correspondent in the room said.
When the scuffles broke out, parliament’s justice commission was gathering to discuss a draft bill from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party to give it more say over the judiciary.
The fight erupted when a representative of a judicial association arrived with a petition arguing the bill was anti-constitutional, but was not allowed to speak, witnesses said.
“If I am being kicked at here as a representative of the judiciary, all prosecutors and judges will be trampled on when this law passes,” a ruffled Omer Faruk Eminagaoglu, head of the YARSAV professional association, said after the ruckus.
Erdogan has cast the wide-ranging corruption investigation, which poses one of the biggest challenges of his 11-year rule, as an attempted “judicial coup” meant to undermine him in the run-up to local and presidential elections this year.
He has responded by purging the police force of hundreds of officers and seeking tighter control over the judiciary.
More than 10,000 people attended a rally in Ankara organized by a labor union to denounce corruption, waving placards with slogans including “Bye Bye Tayyip” and “Tayyip’s money is safe is shoe boxes”, a reference to TV images of hoards of cash found in suspects’ homes during the corruption investigation.
Some handed out fake dollar bills bearing Erdogan’s image.
One of Turkey’s most senior legal figures joined the opposition on Friday in warning the AK Party that its proposed reforms to the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) would breach the constitution.
Ahmet Hamsici, deputy chairman of the HSYK, said greater government control over the body responsible for naming judges and prosecutors would contravene the basic principle of the separation of powers.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag, who was in the room when the punches were thrown, hinted that the AK Party might back down if the opposition agreed instead to changes to parts of the constitution governing the judiciary.
“If all political parties agree on a change in articles and announce it, it could be we withdraw this draft law,” he said.
However, Bozdag’s comments drew jeers of disapproval from opposition deputies, and a senior source in the ruling party said Erdogan had no intention of backing down on the bill.
“The AKP is trying to make its fascist regulation through violence. We won’t allow this,” said Muslim Sari, an MP for the main opposition party, CHP, who said an iPad had been thrown at him during the scuffles.
Erdogan’s supporters have cast the corruption probe as a smear campaign devised by U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who exercises broad, if covert, influence in the media and judiciary. They see the HSYK as dominated by Gulenists.
The affair has helped drive the lira currency to new lows and has shaken investor confidence in a country whose stability has largely derived from Erdogan’s strong grip on power.
But it is the government’s reaction, seeking tighter control over courts, police and even the Internet, that could do deeper long-term damage, not least to Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union and to its relations with Washington. Both are already critical of its human rights record.
The U.S. State Department said this week it supported the Turkish people’s desire for a transparent legal system, while the EU warned Turkey, a candidate for membership of the bloc, about threats to judicial independence.
Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Istanbul and Mert Ozkan in Ankara; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Kevin Liffey