(photo credit: AP)
Turkey's top court convened Monday to decide whether the country's popular ruling party must be banned on charges that it is steering the secular nation toward Islamic rule.
Turkey's chief prosecutor asked the Constitutional Court in March to disband Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and bar him and 70 other party members from joining a political party for five years.
President Abdullah Gul is also on the prosecutor's list.
The case highlights the political rift between Turkey's secularist circles - mostly active in judiciary and the military - and the ruling party, whose many members are devout Muslims with ties to the country's Islamic movement.
The judges began hearing the case a day after two bomb explosions at a packed Istanbul square killed 17 people and injured more than 150 others. It was the deadliest attack in Turkey in almost five years.
Milliyet newspaper said police detained three teenagers in connection with the attack.
The ruling party and the secularist opposition were locked last year in a dispute over who should be Turkey's president, a largely symbolic post.
The ruling party won that round by easily winning
a quick election.
The party later attempted to lift a decades-old ban on the wearing of head scarves at universities, but the top court overturned that bill, saying it was anti-secularist. Chief prosecutor Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya cites the head scarf bill as proof the government is trying to scrap secularist principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Now, with the top court convening to look exclusively into the case until a decision is made, the fate of the party could be sealed as early as this week.
The outcome will affect Turkey's political environment as well as its economy: shutting down the ruling party could force quick elections and unsettle markets. It could also damage ties with the European Union.
Erdogan is eager for Turkey to join the EU, a position he says shows the party does not have a hidden Islamic agenda.
The court has banned two dozen political parties since it was established in 1963.