ANKARA : Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul on Wednesday signed into law a contested bill tightening the government’s grip on the judiciary as it grapples to contain the fallout from a major corruption probe.

The new law, which sparked fistfights among lawmakers debating it in parliament, will give the justice ministry greater control over the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), an independent body responsible for appointing members of the judiciary.

The legislation has been strongly condemned by the opposition and by rights groups, raising questions abroad about the state of democracy in Turkey. Gul last week shrugged off calls to reject the bill, saying it was not his place to challenge legislation. He also indicated he would put his signature to another contentious piece of legislation aimed at strengthening state control over the Internet.

However, in signing the bill on Wednesday, Gul tried to appease some critics by saying he had objected to 15 provisions which were “clearly unconstitutional”, but said these had been taken into account by parliament. “I have therefore decided to approve (the bill), believing that these other articles can be approved by the Constitutional Court,” said Gul.

The legislative manoeuvres come as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen as increasingly authoritarian by opponents, is under intense pressure over a bribery and corruption investigation that has implicated some of his top political and business allies.

Erdogan has accused his arch-rival Fethullah Gulen, a US-based Muslim cleric with strong ties to Turkey’s police and judiciary, of being behind the probe, which began with high-profile police raids in December. In retaliation, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has sacked hundreds of police and prosecutors.

Details of the graft probe have been leaked online, including audio recordings in which Erdogan can allegedly be heard telling his son to hide millions of euros in cash on the same day that the corruption scandal erupted.

The premier on Tuesday angrily condemned the recordings as fabricated and a “vile attack” by his rivals, as several thousand protesters took to the streets to demand his resignation.