SARAH EL DEEB
CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's main opposition group and judges vowed Monday to step up their fight against plans by the Islamist-dominated legislature to debate a bill critics say aims to impose Muslim Brotherhood control over the courts.
The judiciary has become the latest battleground between supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The bill, expected to reduce retirement age for judges, has already sparked violence between opponents and supporters.
On Monday, Morsi met with members of the top judicial body, the Supreme Judicial Council, in an attempt to contain the situation. Morsi said in a statement he "doesn't accept any encroaching on the judiciary or judges" and urged judges to stay clear of media debates and political interference over the issue to reaffirm respect of the judiciary in people's mind.
As for the controversial bill, Morsi said he trusts every authority is carrying out its duty as it sees fit, and that he respects separation of authorities, signaling he won't interfere in the legislature's work.
The Judges Club, a union of 9,500 members, met Monday and pledged to escalate its fight against what its chairman Ahmed el-Zind called "aggression against the judiciary."
The bill, presented to parliament by the Islamist al-Wasat party, is expected to drop the retirement age to 60 from 70. That would force out nearly a quarter of Egypt's 13,000 judges and prosecution officials, according to experts, including some of the most senior judges.
Opponents see this as a way for Islamists force out judges in high courts, including the Supreme Constitutional Court. The two elements have been at odds since the Islamist-dominated parliament was dissolved last year by a court order. The Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's parent movement, counters that many judges are holdovers from the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and they must be removed.
The judges argue that they should have the right to approve changes to the law regulating their profession.
"They aim with this devilish proposal to empty out the judiciary of its seniors," el-Zind said. "The judiciary's young members will put up a fierce battle" against such plans. They plan more meetings this week.
The judiciary is the sole branch of government not dominated by Morsi's Islamist allies, although he does have some backers among the judges.
The opposition, the National Salvation Front, called for demonstrations to begin when the bill is discussed in the Islamist-dominated legislature. Last week the head of the legislature asked a committee to review the bill, but no date for a debate was set.
The NSF said it will defend people's right "to an independent judiciary that is not dominated by a tyrannical executive."
Atef Awad, a member of al-Wasat party, told the private ONTV station that judges should be treated like all other public officials, expected to retire at 60.
Supporters of Morsi held a rally on Friday calling for "cleansing the judiciary," in support of the bill. It degenerated into clashes between supporters and opponents of the measure.
Brotherhood leaders criticized the courts this week over several recent acquittals of former Mubarak officials. They charged that Mubarak supporters in the courts are blocking Morsi and derailing Egypt's transition to democracy.
Secretary General Hussein Ibrahim of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, said the judiciary is not immune to demands for reform, insisting that judges responsible for rigging elections under the former regime or those who accepted bribes should be held to account.
"I know that the majority of judges are fine," wrote Ibrahim on his official Facebook page, while warning that a few corrupt judges are "an imminent danger that is a blow to the demands and goals of the revolution."
AP writer Amir Makar contributed to this report.
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