Court bans Turkey's Islamist 'vampires'

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Turkey banned the main opposition party on charges of Islamist subversion yesterday, setting the stage for political upheaval that could play havoc with an internationally backed plan to rescue the country from its worst-ever economic crisis.

The Constitutional Court ruled to close the Virtue Party down on grounds that it was a "focal point" for anti-secularist activities. Virtue became the latest in a series of Islamic parties to fall foul of the staunchly secularist system which is a cornerstone of Turkish democracy. Many Turks are deeply suspicious of the political Islamic movement, and the die-hard secularist prosecutor Vural Savas, who spearheaded the case against Virtue, has likened Islamists to "blood-sucking vampires".

The verdict is likely to draw criticism within the European Union, which is pushing Turkey to adopt democratic reforms before it joins the bloc. EU leaders expressed concern over the possible ban at their recent summit in Sweden.

Virtue Party MPs and supporters appeared unsurprised by the ruling. "A shadow has fallen over Turkey's democracy once again ... this was clearly a political decision," said the moderate Virtue MP Abdullah Gul.

Virtue's predecessor, Welfare, was banned by the same court after being forced from power in 1997 by the secularist military, a powerful force behind the scenes in Turkey.

The court also expelled two deputies from parliament and banned them from politics for five years. Three other party members were banned from politics for five years. The court is the highest in the country and no appeal is possible.

The ban will not automatically force by-elections, which would have been held if 20 deputies were stripped of their titles. But 40 Virtue MPs had threatened to resign en masse if the party was banned. It was unclear whether they would carry out their threat.

Most of Virtue's 100 deputies can join other parties or remain independent, which could threaten the balances within the fragile three-party coalition.

Turkey is still recovering from a crisis in February after a currency devaluation of some 50 per cent. Thousands of firms have folded and half a million Turks have lost their jobs.

Days of street protests against the government only ended when a new economy tsar, Kemal Dervis, was brought in from the World Bank. But Mr Dervis's reforms would almost certainly be derailed by political uncertainty.

The government's recovery plan, backed with $15.7bn (£11.1bn) in loans from the IMF and the World Bank, has already strained relations in the right-left coalition.

The Virtue ban couldsplit the Islamist movement. This would pit the older so-called traditionalists against a younger generation of politicians who want a more moderate image, closer to the centre-right. This new Islamist grouping could prove acceptable to the secularist establishment.

Virtue is likely to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which is expected to rule this month on the case brought against Turkey by Welfare.