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EU: Rights Reform Sparks Controversy In Candidate Turkey

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Four months after modifying its constitution, Turkey is considering amending the most controversial provisions of its penal code in a further attempt to bring its legislation in line with European democratic standards. But liberal critics have dismissed the proposed reforms, saying they will restrict individual freedoms rather than expanding them.

Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Despite Turkey's recent efforts to reshape its basic legislation to better harmonize with European standards, much work remains before the country can meet the requirements to begin EU accession talks.

Although Ankara applied for EU membership in April 1987, it was granted official candidate status only two years ago -- a delay due mostly to European concerns about human rights. Ankara now stands last among 13 candidate countries.

Last March, the coalition government of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit approved a national program of political, economic, and legal reforms aimed at paving the way for accession negotiations.

Seven months later, the Turkish parliament passed constitutional changes officially aimed at catching up with EU democratic standards. Among improvements endorsed by the legislature were amendments limiting the use of the death penalty to cases involving terrorism and easing the media ban on languages other than Turkish -- a move Ankara presented as a green light to broadcast in the Kurdish language.

Granting greater cultural rights to Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds -- whom Ankara does not recognize as an official minority -- is one of the EU's prerequisites to beginning accession talks.

Rights groups and EU officials initially welcomed the constitutional amendments as a step in the right direction, but later concluded these changes had in practice made very little impact.

In its 2002 report on Turkey, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes authorities are still using various legal pretexts to prevent broadcasting in Kurdish and other minority languages. In an interview with RFE/RL, HRW Turkey researcher Jonathan Sugden described last fall's language amendments as merely cosmetic.

"[The Turkish authorities] changed Articles 13 and 14 of the constitution to say and present this as an end to the problems with freedom of expression. [But] at the moment, Fikret Baskaya, a journalist, is in prison for referring to the Kurdish minority in something that he wrote. And the proprietor of a newspaper is in prison for saying that the 1999 earthquake was divine justice. So it really did not impact on fundamental rights in any practical way at all."

Adding to Europe's concerns, a bitter row recently emerged between Ecevit's two coalition partners over new draft legislation that Turkey says is required to reflect the constitutional changes.

The rift arose last month when Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the center-right Motherland Party Mesut Yilmaz -- who oversees government relations with the EU -- said the 15-nation bloc had notified him that the drafts were not satisfactory and should be revised.

Speaking to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, one high-ranking EU official denied the European body had made any official assessment on the proposed drafts. But he echoed Yilmaz's concerns, saying the projected changes were "broadening the scope of restrictions imposed on individual freedoms rather than narrowing it."

At the core of the dispute are two controversial provisions of the Turkish Penal Code -- articles 312 and 159 -- which the EU would like Ankara to amend.

In its current version, Article 312 states that inciting crowds to hostility on religious, racial, social, or cultural grounds is punishable by up to three years in prison. The amended draft reportedly extends the criminal offense to include cases of inciting hostility in individuals.

Article 159 says anyone criticizing certain aspects of the military, the police, or other state institutions may face up to six years in jail. Journalists, academics, and human rights activists have been imprisoned under this law, which Turkey's influential military also invoked last year to obtain the closure of a website inviting soldiers to air complaints about army life. Article 159's revised version reportedly extends the ban on criticism to any part of these institutions.

Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), vigorously defends the proposed amendments, which he says are a safeguard against national disintegration. He also says his opponents are striving to legalize what he describes as "ethnic and religious separatism."

Addressing the MHP parliamentary group yesterday, Bahceli lambasted Yilmaz, whom he accused of yielding to European pressure at the cost of Turkey's domestic stability. "This pathetic picture does not correspond to our understanding of how earnestly the state should be managed."

President Ahmed Necdet Sezer has said he does not wish to get involved in the dispute. Last week (1 February), he nonetheless entered the fray, saying individual freedoms should be expanded. Asked by reporters what the president's views on the proposed changes were, Sezer's chief spokesman Metin Yalman said: "We cannot possibly interfere in the debate at the present stage. However, as a former chairman of the Constitutional Court and as president of the republic, Mr. Sezer believes it is necessary to broaden the scope of individual freedoms. He has openly expressed this opinion in a great number of statements, including his inaugural speech to the [parliament]."

Turkey's nationalist politicians and army generals also advocate the preservation of antiterror legislation passed in the early 1980s, when Ankara was confronted with an armed insurgency in its predominantly Kurdish separatist provinces. Although Turkey's southeast has been relatively calm for the past two years, emergency laws are still being used to jail militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which advocates the creation of an autonomous state near the Iraqi border.

In a bid to appease Europe's criticism, the government last week (30 January) said it would resume observing a key provision of the 1950 European Human Rights Convention and that the maximum detention period before an individual is brought to justice would be reduced to four days from the current seven to 15 days. The change will also allow detainees to contact relatives and lawyers.

Article 5 of the human rights convention, which Turkey endorsed four years after joining the Council of Europe in 1950, theoretically guarantees detainees swift access to a judge and the right to immediate information about the charges brought against them. Ten years ago Turkey withdrew from Article 5, claiming the exemption under a convention article allowing signatories to suspend certain rights and freedoms in time of war or public emergency.

Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer welcomed Turkey's decision to lift the ban on Article 5 as "entailing progress in terms of human rights protection of detainees." He also reiterated his conviction that "respect for basic human rights is not incompatible with a vigilant attitude towards the threat of terrorism."

Since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States, Turkish authorities have toughened their stance toward separatist and leftist radical movements they commonly refer to as "terrorist organizations."

Besides the PKK, which Ankara claims has been responsible for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since 1984, such organizations include the radical Islamic group Hizbullah -- not to be confused with the Lebanon-based organization of the same name -- and an urban guerilla group known as the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C).

Even though Turkey has been observing a moratorium on executions since 1984, pending the beginning of its accession talks with the EU, several DHKP-C and Hizbullah militants have been sentenced to death over the past four months on charges ranging from murder to attempts to subvert constitutional order and create an Islamic state.

Despite urging from Turkey, the EU has so far refused to include the PKK and the DHKP-C in a list of terrorist organizations, as the U.S. and Britain did in the aftermath of the September attacks.

If Turkey's political elite remains divided on how to amend the penal code, there seems to be a broad consensus in Ankara on the need to resist European pressures on Kurdish cultural rights. Both Yilmaz and Ecevit have notably ruled out the possibility of allowing Kurdish-language education in Turkish schools and universities.

Dozens of Kurdish university students have recently been imprisoned for submitting petitions demanding the right to education in their mother tongue. According to Article 8 of Turkey's antiterror law, the students may be charged with disseminating "propaganda aimed at destabilizing the state."

HRW's Sugden believes this is further evidence that last fall's constitutional amendments mean very little in practical terms. "This is definitely something done for external consumption, so they could say that the language problems are solved. And the fact that we have now 64 students in prison because they have petitioned for a change to their curriculum shows how the arrangements concerning the language were completely empty."

Last week (29 January), the influential National Security Council -- Turkey's main policymaking body, in which the military wields large powers -- accused the PKK of orchestrating the petitioning campaign and said Turkish will remain the only language authorized in classrooms.

In a further move to clamp down on Kurdish separatism, authorities last week temporarily closed down the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, a privately funded establishment which publishes documents and holds courses in the Kurdish language.

Turkish legislators are due to discuss possible legal changes in the coming weeks or months, but no date has been appointed yet for the hearings. The new drafts are still being examined by the parliament's legal committee, and it is still unclear what their final wording will be.

But whatever the outcome, some analysts say the ongoing debate may already be damaging Turkey's EU bid.

In an article published on 29 January in the conservative "Milliyet" daily, columnist Sami Kohen lamented that the dispute over the draft legal changes could undermine Turkey-EU relations just as Ankara and Brussels had marked some progress on Cyprus and other international issues.

Kohen added: "Most importantly, however, is that [the debate] could deal a blow to the hopes and expectations of the Turkish people regarding modernization and democratization."

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