Posted: 31 March 2008 2122 hrs
The 11 judges of the Constitutional Court agreed unanimously to accept the indictment against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) filed by the country's top prosecutor on March 14, the court's deputy president Osman Paksut told reporters.
The ruling formally launches the case against the AKP, which could result in the party being banned: a final verdict is expected to take up to six months.
A decision on whether President Abdullah Gul, who belonged to the AKP until he was elected head of state in August, should be included in the trial was taken by a majority vote, Paksut said.
The chief prosecutor of the Court of Appeals, Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, accused the AKP of undermining Turkey's secular order as part of a plan to replace it with an Islamist system.
He also asked the Constitutional Court to ban 71 party officials, including Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from politics for five years.
The AKP now has one month to present its initial defence to the court, which has banned more than 20 parties since the 1960s.
The AKP, founded in 2002 as the moderate offshoot of a now-banned Islamist movement, has disawoved its religious roots, pledged commitment to the secular system and embraced Turkey's EU membership bid.
The prosecutor, however, argued that moves such as the abolition of a bar on the Islamic headscarf in universities last month and an alcohol ban in restaurants run by AKP municipalities indicate the party's aim to establish a state based on Sharia, or Islamic law.
"All actions and rhetoric of the party are aimed at establishing an Islamist society in which Islamic rules and values have the priority... and then carrying out legal arrangements to move towards Sharia," the indictment said.
The AKP slammed the prosecutor's move as a blow to democracy and a fresh attempt by Turkey's hardline secularists to curb the party after its re-election in July to a second five-year term with almost 47 percent of the vote, a rare feat in Turkish politics.
The AKP announced last week that it is working on a constitutional amendment making it more difficult to ban political parties, drawing criticism that it is seeking to circumvent the system's safety mechanisms.
Legal experts are divided on whether such an amendment would help the AKP fight an eventual ban, some saying the constitution forbids parliament from debating or ruling on issues under judicial process.
The EU has urged the Constitutional Court to take Turkey's interests into consideration when making its decision, warning that the case could hit Ankara's drive to join the bloc.
"I hope the judges will consider Turkey's long-term interests... to be an important European democracy respecting all democratic principles of the EU," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Saturday in Slovenia after a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
"The EU accession negotiation framework says that in case of a serious breach of democratic principles in Turkey, the Commission is obliged to look at what ramifications this could have for negotiations," he said.