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EUROPE: Turkey to be Pushed to Speed Up Reforms

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 18 2008 (IPS) - Turkey will be told later this year that it should accelerate the pace of its reforms on freedom of expression in an official assessment of its efforts to join the European Union.

In November, the European Commission will publish its annual report on Turkey, outlining its views on reforms undertaken by the Ankara authorities with a view to fulfilling their decades old ambition of EU membership.

For most of this year, the Turkish political establishment has been fixated by a legal challenge against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party over allegations that the Islamist background of its leadership threatened the country’s constitutionally enshrined secularism.

Although the case was dismissed by Turkey’s highest court in July, Jean-Christophe Filori, head of the European Commission’s Turkey department, said that it had “taken up energies on all sides” and “distracted attention from the need to pursue reforms.”

Addressing a Brussels debate on Turkey, Filori was nonetheless sanguine about some steps that have been taken. It is positive, he contended, that Article 301 of the country’s penal code – under which writers and academics have been prosecuted over claims they insulted Turkishness – has been amended. And he argued that there appears to have been a “sustained decrease” in incidences of torture of detainees, even if the number of complaints of ill treatment has risen.

Human Rights Watch is less impressed, however. “In general, there has been a stagnation in the implementation of human rights reforms in the past few years,” said the group’s researcher on Turkey Emma Sinclair-Webb. “This year has been another one of stagnation.”

She was particularly critical of efforts to alter Article 301. Whereas reforms approved by the Turkish assembly earlier this year amounted to a “tweaking in the wording” of this article, she insisted that it would be preferable to delete the clause entirely.

Article 301 has been invoked against intellectuals who have exhorted the present day Turkish authorities to acknowledge that the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 was tantamount to genocide. Among those who have faced charges as a result of it were the Nobel winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink, editor of a bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper who was murdered by extremists last year.

Under reforms, the offence of insulting Turkishness has been replaced with the offence of insulting the Turkish nation. The approval of the minister of justice is also now required for prosecutions to proceed. Earlier this month, the current minister Mehmet Ali Sahin decide to allow a case be taken against the writer Temel Demirer over a speech he delivered the day after Dink’s murder.

Demirer’s lawyer Siar Isvanoglu said that the prosecution illustrated how promises by the authorities “regarding the European Union, democracy, structural reform and human rights are all fairytales.”

During a visit to Ankara this week, the head of the Liberal grouping in the European Parliament Graham Watson said: “The revision to Article 301 earlier this year was a positive step but its text continues to prescribe prison sentences to those who insult the state and its organs of government. That is troubling to other European nations and is incompatible with liberal democracy. Mature democratic states should have the self-confidence to absorb criticism from within. The Turkish state is legitimate – it should be able to withstand peaceful expressions of opinion from its own citizens.”

But the country’s foreign minister Ali Babacan cited the changes to Article 301 as an example of the reforms that Turkey is taking in order to bring its legislation into line with that applying in the EU. After talks in Brussels Sep. 17, Babacan promised that further steps will be taken to meet the requirements of EU membership.

The European Commission is also likely to express concern about the persecution of homosexuals in its forthcoming report on Turkey. According to Filori, the banning of the gay rights association Lamba Istanbul by a local court in May “does give us cause for concern.”

Lamba spokeswoman Sedef Cakmak said that her organisation is appealing against the ban and if necessary will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

While homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, the country offers no legal protection to gays, lesbians and people of transgender (men who appear female or women who appear male). “This means you can be fired from a job just because you are lesbian or taken into custody without any reason just because you are transgender,” said Cakmak.

Cakmak said that her organisation had documented many incidents of homosexuals being arrested arbitrarily or beaten by the police. While a greater social tolerance towards gays and lesbians has been seen, there have also been several killings of homosexuals in recent years.

“If you can hide your identity, you will have no problem,” Cakmak added. “If you cannot or if you refuse to hide your identity, that is where the problems start. If you are not a very feminine gay or not a very masculine lesbian, you can have an easy life. As you can imagine, that is not the case with transgender people. They can’t hide their identity and that’s why they are suffering most.”

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