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EU: E-Mail Publication In Turkey Causes Diplomatic Row

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Turkey's tormented relations with the European Union suffered a fresh blow earlier this month when suspected hackers intercepted the electronic correspondence of the 15-nation bloc's representative in Ankara and leaked it to the press. The EU is demanding that action be taken to enhance the security of its diplomatic representation in Ankara. The incident could have dramatic consequences for the Turkish government, which hopes to start accession talks with the EU soon.

Prague, 22 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The latest scandal between Turkey and the European Union broke out about two weeks ago when the "Aydinlik" news magazine, a media outlet affiliated with the left-wing Workers' Party (Isci Partisi), published a series of e-mails sent by European Commission envoy Karen Fogg to EU officials in Brussels.

In comments aired at a subsequent press briefing, Workers' Party Chairman Dogu Perincek -- who first provided the e-mails to "Aydinlik" -- used the messages in a bid to prove his case that Fogg is spying against Ankara and working against Turkey's national interests.

Perincek, whose radical anti-American, anti-European, and anticapitalist views have often sparked controversy in the past, has so far declined to say how he gained access to Fogg's correspondence. The e-mails detail meetings Fogg had with various Turkish officials, nongovernmental organizations, and journalists.

Both the army's General Staff and the MIT -- Turkey's intelligence services -- have denied any involvement in the incident.

The EU immediately enjoined Ankara to take action to ensure the safety of its diplomatic mission. Turkey's belated reaction has apparently prompted the EU to take a tougher stance.

On 19 February, Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen summoned the head of the Turkish mission to the EU to express his concerns. Talking to reporters that same day, EU spokesman Jonathan Faull hinted at growing frustration among European officials, saying four oral protests previously conveyed to the Turkish government had remained unheeded.

"We, of course, ask Turkey to ensure the physical security of our personnel in Turkey, as well as the security of the communications of our delegation there. If necessary, the president [of the EU Commission, Romano Prodi] will bring this matter directly to the prime minister [of Turkey, Bulent Ecevit]. Mr. Verheugen has already discussed the issue with the ambassador [of Turkey, Nihat Akyol]. He also discussed it with the foreign minister [of Turkey, Ismail Cem]. And, if necessary, we will take all measures we will deem appropriate to ensure the security of our delegation and of the persons who work in this country."

Faull did not elaborate on the measures the EU would consider if the Turkish government fails to meet its demands.

Speaking at the same press briefing, Verheugen's spokesman, Jean-Christophe Filori, said the EU also demands that action be taken to prevent Fogg's electronic messages from being published in the press.

"We, of course, expect Turkish authorities to ensure the security of our personnel. But we also demand -- and we've done that several times already -- that Turkish authorities see that an end is put to the publication of these e-mails, which, as you know, were pirated. This correspondence is protected under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic representations, and we have repeatedly insisted that legal action is taken to stop the publication of these e-mails."

Since "Aydinlik" first revealed the content of Fogg's e-mails, Turkey's mainstream newspapers have published abstracts of the hacked EU correspondence, without saying how they obtained them.

The Turkish government has promised to investigate the incident, which Foreign Minister Cem has described as an "ugly crime." Justice Minister Hikmet Sami Turk said people who obtain electronic data illegally might face up to three years in jail. But the investigation has not yielded any substantial results yet.

In a further bid to step up its pressure on Ankara, EU Commission President Prodi telephoned Ecevit two days ago to express his discomfort over the incident. A Commission statement issued later that day says Prodi "stressed the need for a political settlement of the issue at the highest level to ensure that EU-Turkey relations are not harmed by this illegal action."

Contacted by RFE/RL, Turkish Ambassador Akyol's office declined to comment on the issue.

Speaking to reporters after a cabinet meeting focusing on foreign policy issues, Ecevit yesterday described the e-mail incident as "preoccupying." But Ecevit did not mention any concrete steps that would meet Prodi's demands.

"This case, which you call the 'Karen Fogg case,' is of course very preoccupying in its essence. However, as you know, Internet piracy is a very widespread phenomenon across the world. Not a single country in the world has developed legal instruments to fight against it. Steps certainly must be taken in this area, and we have decided to do something to that effect. The origins of this case of piracy are not clear. We are carefully investigating it. The judiciary will also conduct its own investigation. As you know, the issue is in the hands of the judiciary."

Perincek's assertions that Fogg's correspondence shows her disrespect for "Turkishness" and for Turkey in general has provoked rage among nationalists, who are demanding that the EU ambassador be recalled before her term expires in May.

Turkish media earlier this week reported that Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyat had told Spain's ambassador to Ankara, whose country chairs the EU rotating presidency, that Ankara would welcome Fogg's early departure as a way to avoid further controversy. But Ecevit yesterday said this option is not being considered.

A few days before the e-mail scandal broke, Fogg had criticized the speedy legal reforms Ankara is implementing in an effort to join the EU, saying the new laws were adopted at a hectic pace and were mostly meant to earn international financial support to extricate Turkey from a 14-month old economic crisis.

Although no date has been set for Ankara's entry into the EU, Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz -- who oversees relations with Brussels in the government -- said last month (20 January) that Ankara hopes to join the bloc in 2007. Turkey stands last among 13 candidates interested in joining the EU.

Ankara applied for membership 15 years ago but was only granted candidate status in December 1999. Accession talks have not started yet -- a delay due mostly to European concerns about human rights.

Earlier this month (6 February), Turkey's parliament amended controversial legal provisions governing freedom of thought and expression. The changes were officially aimed at bringing national legislation closer to European democracy criteria, but human rights groups, independent lawyers, and liberal politicians have criticized them for falling short of international standards.

During a visit in Ankara last week (14 February), EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen said the reforms were an improvement in "the Turkish context," but proved problematic when considered from a European perspective.

Last year, Ankara adopted a national program of short-term reforms aimed at boosting its chances of joining the EU. Progress made so far is scheduled to be reviewed next month, ahead of an overall assessment of all 13 EU candidates that will be made public next October.

Turkish officials, who have recently supported the resumption of peace talks over the divided island of Cyprus, hope the final review will help set a firm date for accession talks, paving the way for further reforms.

In that respect, most Turkish analysts believe the timing of the so-called "e-mail affair" may not be purely accidental. They point to the fact that one of Fogg's messages leaked to the press refers to a tentative European project to fund a newspaper in the Kurdish language, an idea many in Turkey see as heresy.

European countries are pressing Turkey to scrap the death penalty and grant its 12 million-strong ethnic Kurd minority greater cultural rights, notably by lifting the ban on broadcasting and education in languages others than Turkish.

But some political parties -- mainly Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli's far-right National Action Movement (MHP), the second-largest party in parliament -- and Turkey's influential military are opposed to such reforms, which they claim would threaten the security of the state.

Nationalists and generals fear that abolishing capital punishment would amount to giving concessions to the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party, whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, has been on death row since 1999.

Turkey has observed a moratorium on capital punishment since 1984. In October, the parliament adopted constitutional changes limiting the death penalty mostly to terrorism cases, crimes against the state, and crimes committed in wartime.

Ecevit said recently that he hopes to reach a consensus among legislators and ban capital punishment by the end of this year. But many in Turkey fear the "e-mail affair" may seriously harm relations between Brussels and Ankara and postpone any debate on the death penalty.