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Turkey hits impasse on judiciary as PM warns of 'empire of fear'

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to the members of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on January 14, 2014
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech to the members of the Turkish Parliament in Ankara on January 14, 2014

Turkish leaders remained deadlocked Wednesday over a disputed government bid to rein in the judiciary as embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went on the warpath against an Islamic rival he accuses of plotting a coup.

Erdogan, facing the biggest threat to his 11-year domination of Turkish politics, instructed ambassadors to tell the world about an "empire of fear" he says is behind a damaging corruption scandal.

His comments came as the government faced obstacles in efforts to hammer out a compromise over its plans to exert more control over the judiciary, a move that has stoked concerns among Turkey's allies about the independence of its institutions and the rule of law.

Erdogan, who critics say has become increasingly authoritarian, had said Tuesday he was ready to freeze the legislation in the face of stiff opposition -- but only with conditions.

In an effort to break the deadlock, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag held talks with the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), Turkey's top independent judicial body which has found itself in the government's cross hairs.

But President Abdullah Gul insisted any judicial reforms should meet EU criteria and come as part of constitutional amendments that would require cross-party backing.

"A compromise between the ruling party and opposition would help... demonstrate to those both inside and outside the country that the issues are addressed within a democratic system."

The president has emerged as the conciliatory voice in the increasingly tangled political crisis while his once close alliance with Erdogan has frayed.

The ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved to rein in the HSYK in what observers suggest was an attempt to head off the wide-ranging bribery and corruption probe implicating several key Erdogan allies.

The government has already sacked hundreds of police and prosecutors involved in the investigation, which it charges is a plot to destabilise Turkey by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, an erstwhile ally whose supporters hold key posts in the judiciary and police.

The crisis has dealt a body blow to Erdogan ahead of local elections in March and spooked investors already concerned about the future of the once-booming economy.

'Judge cannot wear political badge'

The AKP bill, which would give the justice ministry more control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors, has been attacked as unconstitutional and has raised alarm bells in the United States and the European Union.

"As a member state and a country which supports Turkey's EU accession, we are watching developments with concern," a diplomat from one EU nation told AFP.

Erdogan is due to visit Brussels next week for the first time since accession negotiations were resumed last year after a three-year hiatus.

He said he could freeze the legislation if the opposition instead agreed to consider judicial reforms as part of changes to the constitution, although his exact proposals are unclear.

But the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it believes Erdogan is still bent on pushing through tighter controls on the judiciary.

"A judge cannot wear the badge of a political party. The judiciary should be impartial and independent," said CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Erdogan has maintained a combative stance throughout the crisis -- the most serious since a wave of anti-government protests in June.

His powerbase has been sharply weakened by the graft probe, which first became public in December when dozens of people including business leaders, civil servants and the sons of cabinet ministers were detained.

But he again charged Wednesday that Gulen and his Hizmet movement -- both of which he has pointedly refused to name -- were conspiring against the entire country.

"That organisation and its allies in the media are trying to deal a heavy blow to economy, hike interest rates, scare foreign investors, sabotage energy policies, and taint Turkey's image abroad."

Gulen's organisation has denied any involvement in the probe -- which has thrown the spotlight on alleged bribery in Turkey's booming construction industry as well as money laundering and gold smuggling linked to Iran.

Erdogan once held an almost unassailable grip on power with a bold vision for Turkey as a modern nation with a strong economy based on conservative Islamic values.

But the political turmoil has exposed fissures within his AKP, which has won three elections since 2002 but could face a rockier ride in this year's polls.

Turkey's financial markets have tumbled over the crisis, with the lira recently hitting record lows against the dollar and euro.