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Turkey tables contested judicial bill

The Turkish government reintroduced a controversial bill on Friday aimed at increasing control over the judiciary, as it tries to contain the fallout from a graft probe that has ensnared the prime minister's allies.

ISTANBUL: The Turkish government reintroduced a controversial bill on Friday aimed at increasing control over the judiciary, as it tries to contain the fallout from a graft probe that has ensnared the prime minister's allies.

The bill, which parliament began debating on Friday, was postponed last month by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan after an uproar from rights groups and the international community.

Meanwhile, the former CEO of Turkey's state-owned Halkbank, arrested two months ago as part of the corruption probe, was released on Friday pending trial.

Suleyman Aslan was among 24 people, including the sons of three former cabinet ministers, who were charged and remanded in custody as part of investigations into bribery allegations.

Aslan was charged with corruption, fraud and money laundering in connection with illegal gold sales to sanctions-hit Iran in return for energy imports.

An Istanbul court released Aslan - the first high-profile suspect to be freed - along with five others, the Hurriyet newspaper reported.

Police had seized $4.5 million in cash hidden in shoe boxes in Aslan's house, but the former CEO stated that he was holding the money for a charity.

Erdogan also said the cash found in Aslan's house was not the bank's money and alleged that Halkbank was targeted by international plotters.

Aslan was replaced as head of the company earlier this month.

In a separate development, the lawyer of Erdogan's son acknowledged for the first time on Friday that his client had testified on February 5 regarding his alleged involvement in corruption.

"Accusations against my client Bilal Erdogan are mere allegations and interpretations," Ahmet Ozel said in a statement published by state-run Anatolia news agency.

"We are dedicated to continuing our legal fight," he said.

In late December, prosecutors said they were looking at corruption allegations involving a charity for students, of which Bilal sits on the management board.

Erdogan has rejected claims that Bilal was complicit in the scandal and said he would immediately disown his four children if they were involved in "such a thing".

On Wednesday, Erdogan told a meeting of former lawmakers that his son and the sons of former ministers implicated in the scandal would file a claim for damages against the prosecutors.

The scandal erupted on December 17 when police arrested dozens of people suspected of a raft of offences including accepting and facilitating bribes for development projects and securing construction permits for protected areas.

It marks the greatest challenge yet to Erdogan's 11-year rule, ahead of key local elections next month. It has sparked a cabinet reshuffle and sent the Turkish currency crashing to all-time lows.

Erdogan says he is battling "a state within a state" and claims the anti-graft probe has been instigated by political rivals, including powerful exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

The firebrand prime minister has retaliated by sacking thousands of police officers, judges and prosecutors involved in the investigation.

The reintroduced judicial bill is seen as his latest attempt to reimpose control.

It includes clauses that would give the justice minister the right to launch investigations into members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors, and the right to dictate the topics discussed during the board's meetings.

The bill could also strip the board of its authority to pass decrees and regulations.

Twenty-one of the bill's 47 articles have already been approved.

The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it would immediately challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court if it is passed by parliament.

The European Union and rights groups have warned that the bill threatens the independence of democratic institutions.

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