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Turkish parliament backs stripping immunity from politicians

Initial vote on AKP-backed legislation indicates support for bill that could see dozens of parliamentarians prosecuted for terrorist offences
Parliamentarians applaud outgoing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu during constitutional debates on Tuesday (AFP)

Turkey's parliament on Tuesday voted through a government-backed bill that will see some politicians stripped of their immunity from prosecution.

The bill was passed by a majority of 348 out of 550 parliamentarians, Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported on Tuesday evening.

The initial vote signals support for the bill, which will go to a second, binding vote after a further day of debates on Friday.

However, sources supportive of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suggested that some AKP MPs could vote against the bill in a surprise move.

The result of Tuesday night's ballot fell just short of the 367 votes - two-thirds of the total seats - needed to change the constitution without a referendum.

The vote means that, if MPs back the bill after the second ballot on Friday, it will go to a national referendum.

MPs are currently immune from prosecution, but prosecutors are able to file “dossiers” against them, which can come into effect after they leave parliament (or if immunity is lifted). If passed, the move will apply only for MPs with current dossiers against them and will not apply to MPs in the future. 

The bill is seen by some as targeting members of the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Presient Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused the party's 59 parliamentarians of links to the PKK, which is outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist group.

Erol Dora, an HDP MP, said after the parliamentary vote: "This amendment request is trampling on the current constitution. Immunity protects free speech and is a vital part of democracy.
 
"MPs, even if in the minority, represent the will of the people. People elected through the vote of people being removed in such a manner cannot be acceptable in a democracy."
 
But Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag rejected allegations that the bill was designed to target the HDP.
 
"Indictments [concerning MPs] are prepared by prosecutors," Bozdag said. 
 
"They are sent to the Justice Ministry, then to the Prime Ministry and then are sent to parliament. The government and ruling [AKP] party have nothing to do with them. The fact that there are fewer indictments against members of our party has nothing to do with us."
 
Previous sessions to debate the bill have descended into chaos, with MPs from opposing parties throwing punches at one another.
 
The head of the HDP's bloc in parliament reportedly dislocated his shoulder at the start of the month in a brawl that broke out in parliament during a debate on the bill, which requires changes to the constitution.
 
MPs from all four parties represented in Turkey's parliament will be covered by the bill - the HDP, however, has warned that it will have a disproportional impact on Kurdish and pro-Kurdish politicians.

Speaking to The Guardian on Tuesday morning, HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtas warned that young Kurds could "lose all hope in democratic politics" if they see pro-Kurdish MPs jailed for opinions expressed in the country's parliament.

Erdogan promised last November, just after his party regained its parliamentary majority in a snap election, to prioritise changing the country's constitution.

Suraj Sharma contributed reporting to this story.