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TURKEY: Constitutional Crisis Escalating

ANKARA, Jul 7 2009 (IPS) - Tension between the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party and the high command of the Armed Forces (TSK) has escalated to new heights after a series of political coups and counter-coups.

An Istanbul court ordered the arrest of a navy colonel Jun. 30 following AKP’s subterfuge to pass a law giving civilian courts the authority to prosecute military personnel accused of crimes such as threats to national security, constitutional violations, the organising of armed groups, and attempts to topple the government.

The following day, a civilian public prosecutor ordered the release of the officer, against whom there was no criminal evidence. Col. Dursun Cicek, a psychological warfare specialist at TSK, had the previous week been accused by AKP of drafting an “action plan to fight (Islamist) fundamentalism” to overthrow the government through civil unrest, media manipulation, and heating of nationalistic feelings against neighbouring countries and minorities.

The ‘plan’ dated Apr. 6 was revealed by Turkish newspaper Taraf in mid-June. It included actions against a moderate Islamist movement close to AKP, led by cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The evidence claimed against Col. Cicek was a photocopy revealing the plan, allegedly signed by him. This is an allegation he has denied. The police have made no conclusion whether the signature was genuine or forged.

An investigation by the military cleared the colonel. This most likely prompted the swift adoption of the new law by the AKP-dominated house of representatives.

The opposition parties, who voted for the law, later complained they were given just half an hour to study the text.

Armed with the new law, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan confronted the military top brass at a meeting of the Security Council (MKG) Jun. 30. The MKG, comprising senior TSK officers and government officials meets periodically to coordinate defence and foreign policy.

President Abdullah Gul is believed to have exerted his authority on both sides in order to avoid a serious crisis.

The positions of the civilian government and the military have, however, remained unchanged. The PM is determined to press for constitutional and legislative reforms in order to size down the powers and authority of the TSK in the country’s political life.

The release of Col. Cicek by a civil court has handed the initiative to TSK. Chief of General Staff Ilker Basbug reiterated last week that the ‘action plan’, if indeed it existed, was not prepared in any official capacity or on the high command’s orders.

Senior military officials, in a statement sent to the President’s office Sunday, have vigorously objected to the new law. They cited Article 145 of the Constitution, which defines the jurisdiction and powers of military courts.

One of the main arguments of the TSK against involvement of civil courts in prosecuting military personnel is that it would violate the immunity and security of the army, politicise officers, and break down the command hierarchy.

A closer look at Article 145, however, leaves room for doubt about its interpretation. The article refers to military courts’ “jurisdiction to try military personnel for military offences, for offences committed by them against other military personnel or in military places, or for offences connected with military service and duties” and “to try non-military persons for military offences specified in the special law; and for offences committed while performing their duties specified by law, or against military personnel on military places specified by law.”

In the new law, the government is clearly interested in limiting to the civil judiciary the right to try officers involved in political crimes. Its supporters base their claims on Article 90 of the Constitution, which deals with international treaties and the primacy of their provisions over national laws that may be in conflict with them.

It is debatable, however, whether the EU acquis specifically covers the respective jurisdictions of the military and civil judiciary, as situations differ among member states. The only clear reference to the role of TSK in Turkish politics is in the EU Council decision of Mar. 8, 2001 setting forth the requirements for Turkish membership to the Union: the objective to “align the constitutional role of the National Security Council as an advisory body to the Government in accordance with the practice of EU member states”. Compliance with this has already begun, reducing the MKG little by little to a consultative organ.

The increasing tension is now dividing the country. Many see this as a clash between secularism, the foundation doctrine of the Republic, and creeping Islamist fundamentalism.

Recent polls show that the AKP has retained its popularity at around 47 percent. But 83 percent say in a recent poll that the armed forces remain the most trusted institution of the nation. It is difficult to predict where this crisis could lead.

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