Thursday, September 28, 2006

Turkey says reforms on track

By Gareth Jones

ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey's prime minister insisted on Tuesday that European Union reforms were fully on track, but the EU's top enlargement official said he was tired of telling Ankara to change laws that restrict free speech.

In a move underlining the EU's human rights concerns, dozens of Kurdish mayors in Turkey's troubled southeast went on trial for opposing the closure of a Kurdish broadcaster.

"The reform process is continuing at full speed and without us losing any of our enthusiasm," Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his ruling centre-right AK Party.

"We are doing these reforms not because the EU wants them but because Turkey needs them," he said.

Erdogan was speaking as members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, debated a report critical of Ankara's reform record over the past 12 months.

Parliamentary sources said the report by Dutch MEP Camiel Eurlings was likely to be adopted on Wednesday in an amended form, deleting a clause which urges Ankara to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey as "genocide".

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told the Strasbourg assembly Turkey must implement more reforms before the Commission's own annual report, due to be published on November 8.

Rehn said he was tired of pressing Turkey to abolish or reform an article of its penal code that makes it a criminal offence to "insult Turkishness", and which has been used to prosecute a number of intellectuals.

"Despite the acquittal of the novelist (Elif) Shafak, freedom of expression remains under threat in Turkey," he said, arguing that the mere existence of such judicial proceedings had "a chilling effect" on journalists, writers and activists.


Erdogan gave no indication on Tuesday that his government might be ready to scrap or modify the controversial article 301.

"It is not enough just to change laws to entrench human rights and freedoms. You also need to change the mentality.... We must be patient," Erdogan said.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, an opponent of change, said Shafak's acquittal last week showed the law was working well.

Opposition leader Deniz Baykal, whose nominally centre-left Republican People's Party has taken an increasingly nationalist stance ahead of national elections due next year, made clear he did not back any change to the present law.

"(Erdogan) is seeking a partner to share the shame of making it possible to insult the Turkish identity. He should knock at another door... We will not support him," he said.

Against similarly loud nationalist opposition, Erdogan defended plans to ease property restrictions for non-Muslim minorities, another key EU demand.

A pious Muslim, Erdogan ridiculed suggestions that the plans would bolster the influence of Orthodox Christian Patriarch Bartholomew, based in Istanbul, and pave the way for the creation of a "mini-Vatican" in Turkey's biggest city.

Parliament, where the AK Party has a big majority, is now debating the 'religious foundations' law, though EU diplomats say the current draft does not go far enough in restoring confiscated properties to non-Muslim religious minorities.

In Diyarbakir, biggest city of Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, 56 mayors faced charges of "knowingly and willingly" helping Kurdish rebels by writing to Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen earlier this year urging him not to close Denmark-based Roj TV.

Ankara views Roj TV as a mouthpiece for "terrorists" and has urged Copenhagen to shut it down. Rasmussen has refused, citing freedom of expression. He has also criticised the trial of the mayors, who face up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

The criminal court judge adjourned the trial until November 21.

Turkey blames rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for the deaths of more than 30,000 people since it began its armed campaign for a homeland in the southeast in 1984.

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Last updated: 26-Sep-06 19:04 BST


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