Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 17:50 UK

Turkish leaders face court case

A supporter of the AK party in Istanbul. File photo
The AKP won 47% in last year's general elections

Turkey's constitutional court has decided unanimously that it can hear a case aimed at closing down the country's governing AK Party.

The chief prosecutor earlier filed a petition calling for the party to be banned for "anti-secular activities".

He also wants 71 AKP officials, including the prime minister and president, to be banned from politics.

The case revives a battle between Turkey's secularist establishment and the AK Party of devout Muslims.

'Attack on democracy'

The AKP (Justice and Development Party) has one month to prepare its initial defence, but it might appeal for an extension.

A Turkish student wears headscarf in Istanbul. File photo
The headscarf reform has been hotly debated in Turkey
The case against the AKP runs to 162 pages: a long list of what the chief prosecutor says is proof the government has an Islamic agenda.

The main focus of his petition is the government's bid to relax the rules on the Islamic headscarf.

The AKP recently changed the constitution, so girls could cover their heads in universities.

Staunch secularists fear that is a first step to an Islamic state - by a party whose leaders once espoused political Islam, the BBC's Sarah Rainsford reports from Istanbul.

Turkish courts have banned more than 20 parties since the 1960s, accusing them of pursuing Islamist or Kurdish separatist agendas.

This case has revealed a systemic error in the Turkish constitutional framework... There is much at stake in the handling of this issue
Olli Rehn
EU Enlargement Commissioner

The AKP argues the case against it is an attack on democracy.

It won 47% of the vote at the last elections, and most opinion polls show strong support for lifting the ban on the headscarf.

The AKP, founded in 2001, is descended from the banned Welfare Party, which saw Turkey as part of the Islamic world and opposed Turkish membership of the EU. But AKP leaders have distanced themselves from that agenda.

The constitutional court will now examine the charges, launching a legal battle that will last for many months.

Our correspondent says that is sure to paralyse the political agenda in Turkey - to freeze a whole series of reforms - and most likely, spark an exodus of foreign investment.

EU concern

The European Union has expressed concern at the case, saying it could jeopardise Turkey's ambitions to join the 27-nation bloc.

"In EU member states the kind of political issues referred to in this case are debated in the parliament and decided through the ballot box, not in court rooms," said a statement from EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on Monday.

"The prohibition or dissolution of political parties is a far-reaching measure which should be used with the utmost restraint... This case has revealed a systemic error in the Turkish constitutional framework that may need to be addressed through a constitutional amendment."

Mr Rehn said Turkey should "devote all its energies to undertaking long-awaited reforms" to pave the way for Turkish EU membership and "this case should not distract attention from those reforms".

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