Turkey parliament adopts contentious immunity bill

HDP lawmakers react after vote

ANKARA - Turkey's parliament on Friday adopted a highly controversial bill that would lift immunity for dozens of pro-Kurdish and other MPs and could see them evicted from parliament, sparking fresh domestic and international concern.
The bill was backed by 376 MPs in the 550-seat legislature, meaning it will become law directly without being put to a referendum, parliament speaker Ismail Kahraman said.
Only 140 voted against the measure.
Under current law, Turkish lawmakers have the right to full immunity from prosecution.
The bill -- which still needs President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's approval before becoming law -- would lift the immunity of 138 deputies from all parties who face potential prosecution.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) says the bill is aimed at expelling its members from parliament.
HDP lawmakers are vulnerable to prosecution on allegations of links or even verbal support for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a three-decade insurgency in the southeast.
The PKK is considered a terrorist group by Ankara and its Western allies. Following the collapse of a two-year ceasefire in summer 2015, Turkey has been waging an intensive offensive against its militants and the renewed conflict has claimed hundreds of lives.
In a speech that came as parliament was voting on the measure, Erdogan lauded the bill as "historic".
"My people do not want to see guilty lawmakers in this parliament especially the supporters of the separatist terrorist organisation," he said.
Officials say the bill would honour existing requests by courts to prosecute sitting members of the parliament.
The HDP, the third largest party group in parliament, has said the bill could lead to the prosecution of 50 HDP deputies out of its total contingent of 59.
HDP MP Filiz Kerestecioglu tweeted : "You're saying yes to a coup attempt. That's how history will remember you. So be it."
- 'Concerns over democracy' -
The legislation sparked concerns over the state of democracy and law in Turkey, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman saying she would raise concerns during a meeting with Erdogan next week.
"For the domestic stability of every democracy, it is important for every relevant group in society to be also represented in parliament," Steffen Seibert said.
"The situation will certainly be raised by the chancellor on the sidelines of the humanitarian summit with Turkey's president," he added, referring to the two-day gathering in Istanbul.
Merkel, who spearheaded efforts to conclude a migrant deal with Ankara, has come under fire for turning a blind eye to rights violations in Turkey in return for its cooperation on curbing Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.
EU interior ministers meanwhile on Friday adopted a so-called emergency brake that would allow the bloc to swiftly halt visa-free access to Europe for Turks and other nationalities if key conditions were violated.
Visa-free travel to the EU is a key demand by Ankara in exchange for taking back migrants who land in Greece under the migrant deal and Erdogan has ruled out any change to Turkey's counter-terror laws for the sake of visa-free travel as its army is battling PKK militants.
- 'Turkey will remain secular'-
The Turkish parliament's session opened with a group of opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) lawmakers walking out in protest against parliament speaker Kahraman, who stirred controversy in April when he proposed a religious constitution.
Before leaving the parliament floor ahead of the secret ballot, MPs chanted: "Turkey is secular and will remain so."
The bill sparked violent scuffles in parliament this month with frustrated lawmakers exchanging fisticuffs and kicks. And it received initial support in a secret ballot on Tuesday.
It now raises the prospect that the likes of HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag -- already the target of criminal investigations -- could go on trial on charges of "terrorist propaganda" for the PKK and even face time in jail.
Should a number of HDP deputies leave parliament, it would ease the way for Erdogan to realise his dream of changing the constitution to create a presidential system in Turkey and further beef up his powers.