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EU/Turkey: Brussels, Ankara Cross Swords Over Legal Reform, Adultery Law

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey has signaled that it has no immediate plans to amend its Penal Code after the European Commission warned that failure to do so could force it to scuttle the start of EU entry talks with Ankara. The Turkish government shelved the proposed reform last week amid a row with the EU over plans to restore adultery as a crime.

Prague, 21 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ankara's delay of the much-anticipated Penal Code reform has sparked what the Turkish media are calling a "crisis of confidence" between the EU and the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The dispute erupted earlier this month when the Turkish government announced plans to reintroduce prison sentences for adultery, eight years after extramarital relationships were de-criminalized by the country's Constitutional Court.

That proposed reversal, introduced by a ruling party with Islamist roots, was included in a legal package meant to modernize Turkey's Penal Code. The reforms, urged by the EU, were aimed at broadening individual liberties and banning torture.

But as criticism over the adultery law mounted both at home and abroad, the Turkish government on 18 September decided to withdraw the entire reform package from parliament.

The announcement sparked a swift reaction from Brussels. "The [European] Commission will make it clear that [entry] negotiations cannot start if [Turkey's] new Penal Code is not adopted by 6 October," European Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said at a news briefing in Brussels yesterday.
One opposition leader said last week that re-criminalizing adultery would be a "historical mistake" and accused Erdogan of being under the influence of "religious sects."

Filori also reiterated comments made over the weekend by the EU enlargement commissioner. Guenter Verheugen had said that Turkey should not expect the bloc to open membership talks until Ankara's Penal Code is liberalized.

The EU Commission is scheduled to meet in two weeks to decide whether Turkey qualifies for admission talks. In the case of a positive assessment, the commission would recommend that EU leaders set a date for entry talks to start with Ankara when they meet in mid-December.

But Turkey has given no indication that it intends to yield to European pressure.

Top members of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party met today in Ankara to discuss the Penal Code issue. A statement carried by the Anadolu news agency after the meeting said Erdogan would maintain his stance when he meets Verheugen and leaders of the European Parliament this week in Brussels.

Addressing reporters after a cabinet meeting yesterday, Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the government's views on the Penal Code reform were well-known and that he had "nothing new" to add on the issue. Cicek, who is cabinet spokesman, said that although the government is eager to start entry talks with the EU as early as possible, it also has to keep a balance between domestic and international issues.

Erdogan's cabinet has justified its stance on the adultery issue by saying re-criminalizing extramarital relationships would help protect the family and strengthen women's rights. Polls show a majority of Turkish women -- especially in Istanbul and Ankara -- opposes the proposed reform.

On 17 September, hundreds of women picketed the Turkish Grand National Assembly to demand that the adultery bill be withdrawn, accusing Erdogan's conservative cabinet of seeking to impose Islamic law on secular Turkey. Parliamentary opposition leaders and Turkey's mainstream media have also criticized the government over the issue.

Deniz Baykal, who chairs the staunchly secular opposition Republican's People Party (CHP), last week said re-criminalizing adultery would be a "historical mistake" and accused Erdogan of being under the influence of "religious sects."

Baykal today called upon Erdogan to "listen to common sense" and abandon plans to have adultery re-criminalized lest Turkey miss another opportunity to join the EU. "A positive assessment of the [commission's Turkey] report is of utmost importance for relations between Turkey and the EU. Turkey must remove all [European] hesitations sparked by [the adultery issue] by 6 October," Baykal said.

The adultery issue has divided Erdogan's cabinet. In comments reported last week by Turkey's "Hurriyet" daily, Culture and Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu said criminal probes into suspected cases of adultery would only "bring sorrow" to families.

Bahadir Kaleagasi is the Brussels representative of the Association of Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen, or TUSIAD, an influential interest group that fully supports Turkey's entry into the EU. He told RFE/RL that by insisting on making adultery a crime, the government threatens to jeopardize past efforts to bring the country's legislation in line with European standards.

"Today we have a parliament with a large opposition party that fully supports these reforms. Civil society fully supports [these reforms]. Democratic reforms are no longer [a matter of debate] in [Turkish] society; they have become part of a very broad national consensus. There is an excellent dynamic and the government should not [waste] its time and the time of the country with [such] unfruitful initiatives," Kaleagasi said.

Turkey has been knocking on the EU's door since 1987, when it officially applied for membership. However, Ankara did not obtain candidate status until 1999 -- a delay mainly due to EU concerns over human rights issues.

Erdogan's cabinet has made entry into the European bloc of nations a top foreign-policy priority. It hopes the planned 17 December EU meeting ends up with Ankara obtaining a formal date for the beginning of accession talks.

But the adultery row has added fuel to the arguments of those European leaders and constituencies who remain firmly opposed to Turkey's entry into the bloc on historical, cultural, and religious grounds. Business leader Kaleagasi said Erdogan's "mishandling" of the adultery issue has turned what could have remained a simple "misunderstanding" into a "political crisis."

Baykal, leader of the secular CHP, said today he will request that parliament hold an emergency session to debate EU-related Penal Code reforms besides the adultery law before the commission issues its verdict. "Our parliamentary group will formally request that parliament hold an extraordinary meeting at 3 p.m. on 28 September to discuss the two remaining provisions of the draft Penal Code," he said.

If CHP lawmakers do request an emergency session, parliamentary speaker Bulent Arinc would have a week to respond. Baykal's party, however, does not have enough parliamentary seats to put a new vote on the agenda without support from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party.