Turkish Court Outlaws Islamist Party

ANKARA (AP/Reuters)–Turkey’s high court today outlawed the Islamic-oriented Welfare Party–a powerful political force that the military and other leaders feared as a threat to the nation’s secular system.

But the Constitutional Court ruling was only a temporary victory for opponents of the Islamic political movement–a new Islamic party–Virtue–had already formed in anticipation of the ruling. Twice since 1970–Turkey had banned predecessors of Welfare–only to see it reborn under new names.

The party’s deputy chairman–Ahmet Tekdal–who was among those effected by the ruling–was defiant: "No matter what–we will continue on our road."

"This decision has no relation to justice–it is a purely political decision," Welfare deputy and former justice minister Sevket Kazan told Reuters.

"This decision casts a shadow over Turkish democracy," senior Welfare member Abdullah Gul told Reuters. "It is questionable whether justice is independent in Turkey."

Fearing protests–Turkey posted riot police outside Welfare’s headquarters and the court. an anti-Islamist campaign inspired by the secularist army.

The ban threatens to further strain Turkey’s ties with the European Union and other Western allies–which characterized attempts to quash Turkey’s largest party as undemocratic.

Chief Justice Ahmet Necdet Sezer announced the 9-2 vote a month after deliberations began–saying the movement clearly violated the constitution.

"It’s unthinkable to have a democracy without political parties," Sezer said. "But it doesn’t mean that no limits should be put on them."

The ruling limits the political activities of Welfare leaders–including former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan–for the next five years.

"He may not be active in politics but he will remain our hero–who fought for democracy," one Welfare deputy–Abdullah Gul–said of Erbakan.

Erbakan–the party chief–and five other Welfare deputies will lose their parliamentary seats and immunity from prosecution–and the party’s assets now must be turned over to the state.

Welfare won 21 percent of the votes in 1995 elections. Erbakan led the country in a center-right coalition for a year until June–when he resigned under pressure from the military.

Despite its overwhelmingly Islamic population–Turkey’s constitution bans parties based on ethnicity–religion or communist ideology–and the armed forces consider themselves the protector of that secular status.

The Constitutional Court also has shut down many Kurdish and communist parties in the past–as well as a predecessor of Welfare in 1971. Its successor–the Erbakan-led National Salvation Party–was closed along with other parties in a 1980 military coup. Welfare was founded in July 1983.

Welfare backers protested that the party was being unfairly punished by a system incapable of recognizing that religion and politics can co-exist–citing Christian Democratic parties in Europe.

Speeches by Welfare leaders and actions by Erbakan’s government–such as forming closer ties with Iran and Libya and his government’s decision to allow civil servants work shorter hours during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan–were part of the basis for the indictment.

Erbakan once called Welfare an "Islamic jihad army" and insisted that the party’s Islamic-guided principles will one day rule Turkey–regardless if the transition is "sweet or bloody."

While Erbakan was in power–generals sent tanks rolling down the streets of a town near this capital city when a Welfare mayor organized a demonstration in favor of Sharia–or Islamic law based on the Koran. Welfare expelled the mayor to distance itself from his views.

The verdict followed Monday’s decision to freeze about $6 million of government funds allocated for Welfare for this year.

Welfare’s base of support came from villages and teeming urban slums–where many people feel disconnected from Turkey’s Western-style progress. Thanks to the party–villages got better roads and sewers–established desperately needed health clinics–cheap bread and free food packages.

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