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Originally published February 15, 2014 at 2:53 PM | Page modified February 15, 2014 at 7:38 PM

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Turkish lawmakers brawl, then vote to rein in courts

The raucous scene in Turkey’s Parliament is emblematic of a messy turn in the nation’s politics. A corruption investigation targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle has the government in crisis.

The New York Times

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ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Parliament met through the night, Friday into Saturday, and passed a controversial measure that gives the government greater control over the judiciary — but not before a brawl on the floor of the assembly left one lawmaker with a broken finger and another with a bloodied nose.

The raucous scene was emblematic of the messy turn Turkish politics has taken recently, as a corruption investigation targeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle has thrust the government into crisis.

Critics charged that the judicial bill is the latest attempt by Erdogan to survive the corruption investigation. Experts say the legislation, which requires Erdogan’s signature and is sure to face challenges in the constitutional court, would eviscerate any measure of a separation of powers in the Turkish political system.

Erdogan has blamed the investigation on supporters of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and whose followers have, over the years, built up deep influence in Turkey’s police and judiciary. The prime minister has referred to Gulen’s followers as a “parallel state” that has engineered the graft inquiry to overthrow the government, and has reassigned thousands of police officers and hundreds of prosecutors to lesser posts.

Amid the purges, Turkey’s justice system has become gridlocked. In the absence of a functioning legal apparatus, the corruption inquiry has played out through a series of leaked telephone conversations, apparently obtained through wiretaps, that show up on social media. The Turkish public has heard conversations in which Erdogan interfered with the news-media coverage of last summer’s anti-government protests — something he has acknowledged — and conversations that seem to show that he agreed to alter zoning laws for a well-connected businessman in exchange for two villas for his family, claims Erdogan has denied.

The judicial bill, critics say, is Erdogan’s boldest step yet in trying to secure control over the state because it would effectively give the government control of the Higher Council of Judges and Prosecutors, which makes judicial appointments.

“The government should consider its citizens’ rights to fair justice, as well as their own, and should do the right thing,” said Metin Feyzioglu, chairman of the Turkish bar associations. “We have to break the cycle in which the judiciary functions as a revenge mechanism.”

The bill has also raised serious concerns among officials in the European Union (EU), which Turkey has been seeking to join.

Erdogan and other officials in his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party have argued that the new rules on the judiciary are necessary to root out the influence of Gulen supporters within the state. Erdogan and Gulen’s backers were once allies in a governing coalition, and while it is difficult to quantify the amount of influence Gulen’s network holds over the judiciary and the police, most analysts say it is substantial.

As allies, the two sides, which represent different Turkish Islamic traditions, led a series of controversial trials in recent years against military officers that secured civilian control over the military. But the methods used in those trials, which numerous experts have said relied on fabricated evidence, have increasingly come under scrutiny as Erdogan seeks to distance himself from Gulen supporters in the judicial system.

The accumulation of Erdogan’s steps to push back against the corruption investigation — the police and judicial purges, the meddling in media coverage and the judicial bill — has given more ammunition to critics who have worried that Erdogan was becoming more authoritarian.

On the floor of Parliament during the debate over the judiciary bill, one opposition lawmaker referred to the prime minister as a dictator and said, according to the semiofficial Anadolu Agency, “you want to purge democracy and control the entire system.”

Members of Erdogan’s party could be heard calling the opposition politician a “drunk.” Then the fight was on, as lawmakers rushed the speaker’s podium.

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