By Ozge Ozbilgin
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's ruling AK Party plans to abolish special courts used in the trials of alleged coup plotters, a parliamentary official said on Wednesday, clouding the future of a legal process criticized as a tool to stifle dissent.
A series of trials investigating hundreds of people accused of links to coup plots or Kurdish militants would be affected by the reform, which one newspaper report said could be submitted to parliament before it go into recess on Sunday.
Critics of the courts say the trials, one of which is a conspiracy case involving hundreds of military officers, have spiraled out of control, with many defendants spending years in custody with no verdict in sight.
However, the dismantling of the courts is likely to face opposition from advocates of the trials, including followers of the influential Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who see them as an important part of Turkey's democratization and calling to account of anti-democratic forces who once dominated Turkey.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan himself has cast doubt on the handling of the cases, suggesting court powers could be curbed, but such a reform was not expected so quickly.
The Hurriyet daily said Erdogan had ordered the abolition of the courts be inserted into a reform package which his party aims to push through parliament before the recess.
Asked whether there were plans for such a reform, a parliamentary official told Reuters: "Work is being conducted within the party. It has not come to parliament yet."
Since first coming to power in 2002, Erdogan's AK Party has been at loggerheads with the staunchly secular military, which distrusted the prime minister's Islamist past.
The special authority courts, established by Erdogan's government in 2005 to replace state security courts, have pursued cases against alleged anti-government plots within the secularist establishment, including the officer corps.
One of the most prominent case started in 2007 when police said they had uncovered an ultra-nationalist network, called Ergenekon, running plots against Erdogan's government.
Many of the hundreds of suspects rounded up and held in lengthy pre-trial detention belong to the military. Others included academics, journalists and social activists.
NEW COURTS ENVISAGED
Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag is heading a commission working on the court reform and AK Party legal experts are examining how the coup-related cases would then be heard, Hurriyet said.
Hurriyet, which did not identify its source, said special authority courts would be replaced by a regional court structure to deal with crimes such as coup-plotting and terrorism. It was not immediately clear how this would affect the ongoing cases.
Erdogan previously criticized special prosecutors for acting as if they were "a different power within the state" and said the courts had been useful at times but also harmful, noting public discontent at the way they had worked.
The prosecutors clashed with Erdogan this year when they sought to question his intelligence chief over secret peace talks held in Oslo with representatives of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants. The PKK have waged a near 30-year battle with the state in which 40,000 people have died and there is considerable nationalist opposition to such talks.
That clash triggered talk of a rift in the AK Party between Erdogan's camp and followers of Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. It also prompted speculation among lawyers that the government may seek to rein in prosecutors seen as exceeding their authority.
In the long-running "Sledgehammer" case where 365 military officers are charged with plotting to overthrow the government, defense lawyers boycotted the trial, forcing the court to send the case back to the prosecutor's office.
Prosecutors allege an army seminar in 2003 laid out plans to undermine Erdogan's government by planting bombs in historic mosques and tourist sites in Istanbul and provoke an escalation of tension with Greece, to pave the way for a military takeover.
The defendants deny the allegations and say the seminar was just a war game scenario and not an actual plot and that some documents used by the prosecution were fakes. The trial could now be referred to another court.
(Writing By Daren Butler; Editing by Mark Heinrich)