The Justice and Development Party's, or AKP, insistence on passing a law that calls for lower jail sentences for match-fixers despite a veto by the president earlier this month, has led to widespread frustration among the public, making the party target of harsh criticisms in the social media.

Turkish Parliament on Saturday approved a sharp reduction in prison terms for match-fixing and hooliganism, a move that will lead to lighter sentences for any suspects found guilty in a recent match-fixing scandal.

Parliament voted for the new reduced term of a maximum three years in prison, overriding a veto by President Abdullah Gül on Dec. 2, who argued that the amendments were giving "the impression of a special arrangement" to save the suspects, including Fenerbahçe President Aziz Yıldırım.

In addition to the AKP, the opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, were in support of the amendment, which passed Parliament with the backing of 284 deputies on Saturday.

AKP Gaziantep Deputy Şamil Tayyar, who had sent a letter to Gül asking him to veto the law when it was first presented to him, was absent at the time of the vote on the law in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç was also not in Parliament on Saturday because he was abroad. Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı and Energy Minister Taner Yıldız, who earlier opposed to the law, voted for the law on Saturday. A total of 73 AKP deputies were absent in Parliament during Saturday's voting.

The pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, which is the only party that opposed the law in Parliament, had five deputies in the Parliament on Saturday who all voted against the law. During the voting, there was tension between some AKP and BDP deputies who directed accusations to each other over the law.

At one point, BDP's Hasip Kaplan, who was exchanging harsh words with the AKP's Nurettin Canikli, lost his temper and threw a glass at the Parliament's lectern angrily. Kaplan later apologized to Parliament for losing his temper. The attempt to reduce jail terms has been received highly suspiciously by the general public, mainly due to the fact that there is currently a major match-rigging scandal taking place in Turkish football.

The government and opposition parties' readiness to change the law in such a short time has created the impression that Parliament is under pressure from Turkey's highly organized and powerful football lobby, or has an interest in protecting the individuals currently facing charges of match-fixing.

"The AK Party's insistence on the match-fixing law has caused an environment of lack of confidence in the party among the public more than a disappointment," said Star daily columnist Mehmet Altan, voicing his regret over Parliament having passed the match-fixing law.

He said the AKP's strong support of the law has prompted people to think that this attitude (of siding with illegitimate formations) is the real face of the AKP, which should be cared for in the future.

According to Altan, the passage of the match-fixing law means "suicide" for Turkish politics in general because this shows that Turkish politics has come under control of the power of money of illegal organizations, dealing a blow to Turkey's aim to be an advanced country and democracy.

There is mounting criticism toward the AKP on the social media due to the party's stance on the match-fixing law, with more and more people voicing their disappointment with the government and even saying that they will no longer vote for the party.

Since it came to power as a single party government since 2002, the AKP has been enjoying growing public support in every election. The party came to power for a third single term in the general elections of June 12, receiving a historic 49.9 percent of the nationwide vote. In addition to its success in economy, the AKP's democratization efforts for the country and determination to fight with illegitimate structures, gangs and mafia are cited as reasons behind the huge public support for the party.

In one of the reader's comments on the Web site, a reader with the nickname Avokoda, said: "I will no longer vote for the AK Party. I feel like having been deceived. The prime minister played with fire but he is not aware of it."

A Twitter user with the nickname karo555 wrote: "I think the ruling party acted wrong on the issue of match-fixing but the opposition parties failed to make use of this."

In his column on Zaman daily on Saturday, Ahmet Turan Alkan wrote he was very surprised, saddened and offended to see Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take side with the football barons and not with the people on the match-fixing issue. He said the party's attitude on the match-fixing law did not befit what it calls the "mastership era" of the party. Prior to the June elections, the AKP said its term in power would be the era of his mastership.

"The strong determination and insistence he showed for the match-fixing law is actually not the sign of patience but a sign of kneeling down," Alkan said, adding that he has only one condition to forgive the AKP (for its support of the match-fixing law). And that is to convince the CHP and MHP, which strongly supported the AKP for the match-fixing law, to prepare a new Constitution as he promised earlier.

Before the June elections, all the political parties in Parliament pledged to replace Turkey's current Constitution, which is the legacy of 1980 coup and criticized for including anti-democratic elements.

Bekir Berat Özipek, an associate professor of political science, is of the belief that the AKP's support for the match-fixing law seriously damaged its claim of support for "superiority of law" instead of the "law of the superior."

"So, when you surrender to the 'law of the superior' in an area, for instance, in football, you lose the moral legitimacy of opposing to the 'law of the superior' in another area. This also dashes hopes for cleansing through the Ergenekon case," Özipek told Today's Zaman.

Launched in 2007, the investigation into Ergenekon, a shadowy crime network which has alleged links within the state and is suspected of plotting to topple the government, is a seen as a "milestone" for Turkish democracy since Turkey is for the first time confronting with coup attempts and illegal structures nested in the state.

Erdogan Blames Dictators for Bloodshed in Middle East

Calling for an end to the bloodshed and tears and the restoration of peace, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said "dictators" were to blamefor shadowing peace and stability in the Middle East Saturday.

"As long as there are dictators who open fire and massacre their own people and cannot bear any opposing views or action, there will not be peace and stability in the Middle East," Erdoğan said in his recorded video message for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations meeting in Doha, Qatar."Bloodshed and tears must end in the Middle East."

Erdoğan was speaking at a meeting hosting participants from more than 130 countries, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He urged the solution of what he said were "chronic problems" in the Middle East to restore peace in the region and all across the world.

The prime minister received a huge round of applause when he raised the issues of justice, Gaza, Syria and Arab revolts, said İbrahim Kalın, the director of the Turkish Prime Ministry's Office of Public Diplomacy said via Twitter Saturday. Erdoğan, who had been scheduled to attend the forum, canceled his trip as he underwent a laparoscopic surgery in his digestive system Nov. 26.

Before the alliance's meeting in Rio, a report was released on how to restore peace in the world, Erdoğan said, adding that the report revealed that the main element that escalates the tension between the West and Islam is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Also commenting on Palestine, Erdoğan expressed sorrow over the decision made by the United States after Palestine's UNESCO membership was accepted.

"We, as Turkey and Qatar, are ready to fulfill our responsibilities," he added.

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay also attended the forum.

'Small Countries Join EU, Big Countries Bargain'

Small countries were joining the European Union while big countries were bargaining, Turkey's President Abdullah Gül said Friday after Turkey continues to be disappointed in not making headway in its EU bid while Croatia signed its accession treaty.

Gül's remarks came after Croatia, whose negotiation process with the union began at the same time as Turkey, signed an accession treaty with the EU. Croatia will become EU's 28th member in July 2013.

Gül said Turkey's real goal was to conclude the negotiation process successfully, and then it may decide not to join the union, just like Norway. When asked how many EU member countries were also members of the G-20, Gül said "Only three or four of them, and, therefore, this should be evaluated well."

Turkey is a member of G-20 and became an EU candidate country in December 1999. The union launched accession talks with Turkey on Oct. 3, 2005. The EU has so far opened 13 of the 35 chapter headings to negotiations with Turkey.

Meanwhile, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said Saturday that they would ask the Turkish people about the EU membership issue.

"Turkey wants to join the EU. We have been given many obstacles, but the EU is not a single choice for Turkey. We will ask about the EU membership issue to our people," Arınç said during a meeting with Indonesian media representatives at the fourth Bali Democracy Forum.

The EU was not sine qua non for Turkey, Arınç said, and Turkey had a model partnership with the U.S. as well as Asia and Africa. Turkey recently opened 30 embassies in Africa.

Ankara Slams EU Over Greek Cyprus Row

The European Union's description of a Turkish protest against Greek Cyprus term presidency in the second half of 2012 as a "threat" was strongly rebuffed by Ankara, who advised the 27-member union to deal with the problem it created.

"We would like to recall that the situation surrounding the Presidency of the EU in the second half of 2012 results from political miscalculation and mistakes made with regard to the 2004 enlargement," Turkey's Foreign Ministry said at the weekend in a statement in criticism of the EU Council Conclusions.

The EU asked Turkey to fully respect the Presidency as an institution after Ankara announced it will suspend its ties with the EU during Greek Cyprus' presidency.

"The problem at hand is not of Turkey's making," the statement said, adding that it was "imperative for the EU to respond constructively to the present challenges it collectively faces."

Turkey maintains its sincere desire for a comprehensive settlement in Cyprus in the coming months, the statement said.

"Turkey's call was to encourage a comprehensive settlement on the island by 30 June. The perception of this call as a threat by no means reflects good will. If the EU has good will and wishes to contribute to a just settlement, it should put more pressure on the Greek Cypriots toward a comprehensive settlement."

Romanian Leader Urges EU to Send Positive Signals to Turkey

Romanian President Traian Basescu said the European Union needs to send positive signals to Turkey, stressing that the EU candidate country brings an important contribution to the EU's wider neighborhood, including the Middle East and North Africa.

In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman on the eve of his state visit to Turkey, which begins on Monday, Basescu said the "EU needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs the EU."

Reiterating his country's strong support for Turkey's membership bid, the Romanian president said: "In [our] relations with our European colleagues, we continue to advocate the need for the EU to send more positive signals to Turkey."

No chapters have been opened during the last three presidencies of the EU, a period of roughly one and a half years, during which Croatia, the country that started accession talks on exactly the same day as Turkey, managed to make so much progress that was it able to sign its accession treaty last Friday. The progress on negotiations between the EU and Turkey was practically halted over tensions with EU member Greek Cyprus, as well as opposition from France, Germany and Austria.

"Turkey brings an important contribution and is an important actor in the union's wider neighborhood, playing an active role in this year's events in the Middle East and Northern Africa," Basescu noted, adding that he welcomes the European Commission's proposal for a positive agenda of priorities with Ankara, recently endorsed by the European Council, which envisages boosting the current negotiation process with Turkey in areas of common interest.

Dismissing suggestions that Turkey does not belong in the EU, the Romanian president argued that Turkey has proven on many occasions its European vocation.

"Its history has long been intertwined with that of Europe, while European values are part of the country's identity," Basescu said, also praising Turkey's dynamic economy, which has been geared towards substantial trade and investment links with the EU.

The visiting president had some suggestions for Turkish officials as well, saying that reforms are not just limited to candidate countries but are needed for member countries as well.

"EU membership is a process that is comprehensively assessed before accession and that continues through reforms also implemented after becoming an EU member. As an EU member state, Romania is fulfilling its commitments accordingly and promoting its interests in a manner congruent with the common European interest," he said.

Basescu's message focused on a couple of factors that are vital for Turkey's bid.

"I believe that for any country aiming at becoming an EU member state, a number of factors are key -- a strong and long-term political will, profound reforms and a comprehensive internal communications process about EU values and about the benefits and obligations stemming from such an objective. Ensuring strong public support is essential," he explained.

He delivered veiled criticism of the EU for not allowing his country to join the Schengen visa-free travel area. The EU failed to announce the Schengen zone enlargement at the European Council meeting in Brussels on Friday, which would have included Romania, because of opposition by the Netherlands. The EU may take up the issue again in March 2012.

"The Schengen accession is an objective assumed by Romania in the Accession Treaty to the EU. Our full preparedness to join the Schengen area has been recognized by all member states. We are confident that wisdom will prevail," the Romanian president said.

Room for Improvement in Bilateral Ties

The Romanian leader underlined that the key element bonding Romania and Turkey together is "the strong personal ties between the people from both countries." He announced that during his visit both countries would sign an important document for enhanced cooperation.

"This moment has a historic importance in our bilateral relations, and we hope it will lead to enhanced cooperation in such areas as international cooperation, economy and energy, environment, security, education, culture and tourism," Basescu said.

He praised Turkish investors who are active in the Romanian market in fields ranging from trade to agriculture, from the banking sector to the health industry and from media to tourism.

"However, we consider that there is still important potential to be explored in both markets," he remarked. "That is why we encourage Turkish investors to explore even further the opportunities offered by the Romanian market, and at the same time I would like to call on Romanian businessmen to be more active in the Turkish market," he said.

The Romanian president is expected to attend the Romanian-Turkish Business Forum, to be held in İstanbul on Tuesday.

Basescu also hailed the recent agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan in reference to the transit of natural resources to Europe, the EU-Azerbaijan declaration regarding the Southern Corridor, which was the mandate of the European Commission for starting the negotiations on a trilateral agreement with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan for the construction of the Trans-Caspian pipeline.

"Romania is a very firm and strong supporter of Nabucco [pipeline, also referred as the Turkey–Austria gas pipeline]. A very important step, supported by Turkey, was the signing of the Project Support Agreements [PSA] last June in Kayseri, and this is a very important and positive signal for investors," he said.

"Nabucco's success also depends on securing viable gas sources. The project will increase not only Romania's energy security, but the energy security of the whole region. We believe that Caspian resources are essential for the future energy security of Europe and for the materialization of the Nabucco project. In this sense we have always promoted this project in our dialogue with Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. In the context of diversifying sources and transport routes, we are currently considering developing energy projects in the LNG [Liquefied natural gas] field, through the so-called AGRI project [Azerbaijan-Georgia-Romania-Interconnection (AGRI) project to transport LNG from Azerbaijan to the EU through Georgia and Romania]," Basescu explained.

Another source for bilateral relations is the enhanced cooperation in the Black Sea region, the Romanian leader said. "The Black Sea region is very important for both countries [Romania and Turkey]. Transforming the region into an area of stability, prosperity and security remains undoubtedly a top priority for us," he underlined, lamenting, however, the gap between use and potential in the Black Sea region.

"We do believe the Black Sea carries great potential for cooperation involving all interested countries, from the region and beyond, but it also faces a range of specific energy-related opportunities and challenges," the Romanian leader said, adding that the region could provide solutions for energy supply diversification because of its unexplored potential. "Wind, hydro and solar energy could make the region a key element of Europe's energy strategy," he pointed out.

Basescu ruled out possible modifications to the Montreux Convention (a 1936 agreement that gave Turkey control over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, allowing it to regulate military activity in the region). Citing environmental concerns and the possible hazard huge oil tankers pose to the straits and cities around the Marmara Sea, Turkey argues that the old convention must be updated to reflect new changes.

"We are aware of the concerns of Turkey. In our view, the Montreux Convention is an important legal instrument for the navigation and it must be fully respected," Basescu noted, stressing that transportation is one of the most important elements to be taken into consideration in an increasingly globalized world. "Without effective, reliable and efficient transport, no trade or international investment can take place," he underlined.

As for the cooperation on terrorism and alleged activities of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, on Romanian soil, Basescu said: "Romania has not just stated its commitment to fighting terrorism, but has consistently put it into practice and proved it in action. We fight collectively, sharing information inside the EU and NATO, and we strongly condemn any acts of terrorism perpetrated by terrorist organizations in Turkey or elsewhere. Of course, it might be important to improve communications on this matter so that our efforts are better understood. However, I emphasize that our legislation regarding terrorist activities is some of the toughest in the world."

He also confirmed that authorities, Romanian and Turkish, are closely cooperating in this regard. "We will continue improving the institutional mechanisms and tools of this cooperation," he pledged.

Romanian President Traian Basescu defended his country's decision to host a NATO missile defense system in southern Romania, saying that it is a strictly a defensive system and it is not aimed at any state. He reiterated his commitment to the project, but added, "We cannot outsource our security, and I am convinced that Russia is in a similar position."

"[Both from a technical and a legal] point of view, it cannot become offensive as it is clearly stated in our agreement that it can be used only for self-defense," he argued. "We see our bilateral project with the United States in the field of missile defense as an important contribution to the capability NATO decided on in Lisbon [in November 2010] to develop, consistent with NATO's principles of indivisibility of security, Allied solidarity and full coverage of Allied territory," he explained, adding that the project is about ways to address concerns not only of the US and Romania but of all NATO members as well as of many partners around the world.

The Romanian leader also praised Turkey's decision to host a radar system as part of this project.

"We welcomed the commitment of the authorities in Ankara to engage in the efforts towards creating a broad system that would protect NATO countries against ballistic missile attacks," he said, emphasizing that his country is open to cooperate with NATO's partners on missile defense based on the principles of transparency and reciprocity.

He also encouraged NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense, saying that there is a potential for that and that NATO is open to cooperation.

"A few days ago, at the meeting of the NATO Russia Council at the level of foreign ministers in Brussels, on Dec. 8, the alliance made clear, time and again, that NATO's ballistic missile defense capability is defensive in nature and will not undermine Russia's strategic deterrence," he said.

Iran Renews Threat to Attack Turkey

Iran again threatened to hit NATO's missile defense system in Turkey if the United States or Israel attacks the country, warning that the country has pre-studied plans. Iranian officials have repeatedly said the NATO radar system aims to protect the Israeli regime, under the name of NATO.

An Iranian security official said if there would be any attack on Iran they will "definitely" target the missile system, which is planned to be stationed in the eastern province of Malatya as part of NATO's missile defense project and they have a plan to counteract the shield.

"We are closely monitoring the relations with Turkey in the National Security Commission of the parliament," said vice-chairman of the Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy commission, Hossein Ibrahimi. "Iran has warned before Turkey that the deployment of the system will have grave consequences. General Hajizadeh's remarks are entirely true and when we were attacked, it is our natural right to defend ourselves.

"Our armed forces have pre-studied plans and tactics against the NATO system," Ibrahimi told Farsi-language Shargh newspaper. "This system actually aims to protect the Zionist regime, under the name of NATO. This is a problem for Turkey who authorized the deployment of the system. Turkey shouldn't do this."

Ankara previously conveyed unease to Tehran over the remarks warning that Iran would target the NATO missile defense installations in Turkey's Malatya province if the U.S. or Israel attacked by Gen. Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu conveyed to his Iranian counterpart Turkey's disturbance over recent Iranian threats to attack installations in Turkey when the two met in Jeddah on Nov. 30. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the air force commander's remarks did not reflect Tehran's official position.

Iranian officials have long criticized Ankara for deploying a U.S.-led NATO early warning radar system in its territories, but it was the first time a high-ranking military official from Iran warned of a military act against Turkey.

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