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Turkey: Council of Europe Says Ankara Progressing On Reforms, But Deficiencies Remain

A preliminary report by the Council of Europe says Turkey has proven its commitment to constitutional and legislative reform and no longer needs to be monitored. The report is seen as an important step for Turkey toward opening accession talks with the European Union. But human rights groups say Ankara still has much to do to stop the violation of minorities’ rights, to improve freedom of expression, and prevent torture.

Prague, 4 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A report issued by the Council of Europe's monitoring committee says Turkey has made major steps in constitutional and legislative reform and has improved human rights.

The report says Ankara has, "in hardly more than two years, realized more reforms than in the 10 preceding years."

"We've seen a very poor implementation of the legal changes and, frankly, a disappointing experience both in the courts and the way that they treat newspapers, demonstrators, journalists and so on."
The report is seen as an important boost for Turkey, which has long sought to open accession talks with the European Union.

The report for the pan-European human rights watchdog says Turkey "has clearly shown over these past three years its determination and capacity to fulfill the statutory obligations as a member of the Council of Europe."

The committee's report must still be approved by the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, at the end of next month, but diplomats say that is just a formality.

The document, which was adopted by the monitoring committee yesterday, proposes that Turkey be dropped from a list of countries monitored for democratic shortcomings, which it has been on since 1996.

Mady Delvaux-Steehres is one of the monitoring committee's two co-rapporteurs on Turkey. She told RFE/RL, "We will recommend the assembly to close the monitoring procedure against Turkey because of the big progress made by this country concerning human rights. And we recommend to open what we call a postmonitoring dialogue in which recommendations are set."

The report says the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made "good use of its absolute majority in parliament and the consistent support of the only opposition accelerate and intensify reforms."

Erdogan's party has been in power since it won a general election in November 2002.

The document says Turkey is what it calls "a functioning democracy with a multiparty system, free elections, and a separation of powers."

Delvaux-Steehres says the Council of Europe has outlined a number of recommendations that should be pursued, including the drafting of a new constitution.

"We recommend Turkey to adopt a new constitution, to continue training police and judges to have a better respect for the charter of human rights, to continue the effort in fighting violence against women. Then there's a recommendation to reform the different laws on press and [freedom of] association," Delvaux-Steehres said.

The report refers to the powerful military, which wields huge influence and has intervened in Turkish politics in the past. It says the government has "reduced the role of the National Security Council to what it should never have stopped being -- a purely consultative organ on defense and national security."

But the document also points to deficiencies, such as the continued dissolution of political parties, and says the 10 percent minimum threshold for parties entering parliament is too high.

It calls on the government to review laws on political parties, trade unions, and the media to bring them in line with European standards.

The Council of Europe report also urges the government to change laws on security courts, create a citizen's ombudsman, and reform laws on crimes of honor.

Turkey is the only EU candidate country yet to start talks, due to continued concerns over its human rights record. But analysts says there are signs the EU may agree at a summit later this year (December) to open admission talks with Ankara, provided it stays on its path to reform.

Some EU states are reluctant to open talks with Turkey, a relatively poor and predominantly Muslim country of 70 million people, whose borders stretch as far as Iran. Reports say Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands also remain unhappy about the country's human rights situation.

Their concerns are echoed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which said in a statement yesterday that Turkey's progress on human rights reforms was marred by blunders and lapses in the first two months of this year.

Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch told RFE/RL that good progress has been made on adopting important packages of laws on freedom of expression or protection of detainees against torture, but that implementation remains unsatisfactory.

"We've seen a very poor implementation of the legal changes and, frankly, a disappointing experience both in the courts and the way that they treat newspapers, demonstrators, journalists and so on, and also in the way that we see police officers and gendarmes treating the people who they arrested," Sugden said.

Sugden says there has also been a move toward the liberalization of the languages laws of August 2002, which recognized the right of the Kurdish population -- estimated at between 10 and 20 million -- to use its own language in schools and broadcasts, but that, again, implementation has been slow.

"They should really encourage not just the Kurdish minority, but there are also substantial Georgian, Arabic minorities, as well as the official Armenian and Greek minorities. They should encourage them to establish their private courses and broadcasting if they wish and really make sure that that happens, and that could be done in just a matter of weeks," Sugden said.

EU foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Ankara next week to discuss Turkey's progress toward meeting membership requirements.