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ISTANBUL--Turkey's government on Friday passed emergency legislation blocking senior Turkish intelligence officials from being called to testify in a criminal court, signaling the ruling party's victory in the latest battle of a behind-the-scenes power struggle that last week reached the doorstep of Prime Minister.
The bill, which passed by a wide margin in the early hours of Friday morning marked the latest move in what appeared to be a tussle between the country's two security forces, the police and the national intelligence agency, the MIT. The new law marks the latest accumulation of political power in the hands of Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, enabling him to block prosecutors' summons for intelligence officials or other public servants he has appointed for "specific duties."
That rift that prompted the emergency law change emerged last week after five senior Turkish intelligence officials, including the current spy chief, Hakan Fidan, were called to testify in an ongoing probe of Kurdish rebels. The ever-broadening probe into the group--the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, or KCK--which officials call the urban arm of the Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK, has led to the detention of thousands of people, according to Kurdish politicians.
The new law, which was ratified by President Abdullah Gul later on Friday, drew fire from opposition politicians who pledged to launch an appeal against the law at Turkey's Constitutional Court.
The main opposition Republican People's Party, or the CHP, said Erdogan was seeking to create a "personal gang" of untouchables.
"Nor Hitler nor Mussolini acquired such powers in their own parliaments," said CHP lawmaker Kamer Genc during a marathon 12-hour debate over the bill in parliament, according to official records.
Erdogan's ruling AK Party last week appeared to be spooked by the special prosecutor's summons of the country's top intelligence officials, apparently fearful that testimony could compromise clandestine efforts to broker a compromise deal with Kurdish rebels. The day after the government proposed emergency legislation to block such testimony, the prosecutor who ordered the questioning was removed from the case and is now being investigated by judicial authorities.
Many Turks believe that in striking at the heart of the country's intelligence service, the special prosecutor had broader support. Some have argued that the challenge issues from military secularists who have come under pressure from the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan; others see the hand of a conservative Islamic faction led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen that seeks influence in the intelligence service.
Analysts said that passing of the law suggested that the government was reverting to traditional Turkish practise of strengthening the state instead of strengthening accountability.
"Instead of taking steps on the path to becoming a state of law and becoming more transparent...the Turkish state system is become even more coddled, and the Prime Minister is more protected now...The steps [of becoming a state of law and more transparent] seem to have postponed with this move," said Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University.
Lawmakers from Turkey's governing party have repeatedly stressed that the law change was necessary as public testimony could compromise intelligence operatives working undercover inside the PKK.
Turkey's press, lawmakers and analysts have speculated that the calls to testify centered around talks that MIT chiefs held in Oslo in 2008 and 2009 with high-level representatives of the PKK. The Kurdish group has been fighting since 1984, first for independence and later autonomy, in Turkey's southeast.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
The contacts became public last year after sound recordings were leaked to Turkish media. Word of those talks were explosive because the government has long held it doesn't negotiate with terrorists.
On the leaked tapes, a voice identified as Fidan's told PKK officials that he was "the representative of the prime minister.