Turkey’s top judicial body hit back on Friday at the government’s plans to curb its powers, adding fuel to a bitter row over a vast corruption probe engulfing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The parliament began on Friday to debate the proposed reforms, which would give the justice ministry more powers to decide who makes up the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) and strip the legal body of its powers to pass decrees.
The changes were slapped down by the judicial body itself as unconstitutional, while the US and the EU weighed in citing serious concerns.
“With the law amendment, the board is reporting to the justice ministry. The amendment is against the constitution and the formation of an independent body,” the HSYK said in a written statement, adding that the reforms were against international law.
The government had moved to rein in the HSYK after a vast corruption probe broke, implicating key allies of Erdogan.
The firebrand prime minister has responded angrily to the investigation, also firing hundreds of police chiefs in a major purge.
Alarmed by the developments, Washington stressed the importance of “a legal system that meets the highest standards of fairness, timeliness, and transparency in civil and criminal matters.”
“No one is above the law,” US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday, adding that allegations against public figures must be investigated impartially.
In Brussels, Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks, called the plans to curb HSYK “a serious setback for the independence of the judiciary in Turkey.”
Lawyers and the liberal media also opposed the reforms, with the influential Union of Turkish Bar Associations calling them unconstitutional and warning that they violate the principle of separation of powers.
“This is the last nail in the coffin of democracy,” columnist Mehmet Yilmaz wrote in Hurriyet.
Parliament speaker Cemil Cicek said on Friday he launched a probe into Turkey’s first ombudsman Nihat Omeroglu over reports that he had threatened Zekeriya Oz, one of the main prosecutors in the probe who was removed from his position, on behalf of Erdogan.
“After reading such reports, I’ve started an investigation as the ombudsman is working subordinate to Parliament. The ombudsman demanded to be investigated as well” Cicek told reporters.
Turkish Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag on Friday said motions to remove the immunity of four former ministers who were caught up in the corruption scandal had been submitted to the ministry. “We are examining the motions. We will do what is necessary after the examination,” he said.
The crisis erupted on Dec. 17, when police rounded up dozens of people, including sons of former ministers and top businessmen, suspected of numerous offenses including bribery for construction projects and illicit money transfers to neighboring sanctions-hit Iran.
On Friday, police detained 35 people, including 10 customs officers in the southern city of Mersin on suspicions of accepting and facilitating bribery, customs and trade ministry officials said. The fresh arrests came three days after police carried out raids in five cities and detained 25 people on suspicions of bribery and fraud in tenders for construction projects. Fourteen of these were formally charged and put in pre-detention.
Erdogan has accused loyalists of US-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose movement wields influence in the police and judiciary, of instigating the corruption probe, but Gulen has denied any involvement in the controversial inquiry.