The Turkish Parliamentary Justice Commission on January 24th approved a package of human rights and freedom of expression proposed by the ruling coalition as Turkey tries to comply with the European Human Rights Convention by March this year. Amendments to two articles in the Turkish Penal Code especially, Articles 159 and 312, have further polarised the positions the three ruling parties and opposition parties, whose views vary between wanting to abolish the respective articles altogether, or that the amendments further restrict human rights as the wording is not sufficiently clear, leaving too broad a scope for interpretation.
Article 159 regulates punishments for those that have defamed the Turkish state as a principle, including Turkish identity and state organs such as the military and the judiciary. According to supporters of the article's amendment, it had to be changed as it did not draw a distinction between criticism of the state and defamation, leading to a number of writers being imprisoned under its terms. Critics simply point out that it has become even more vague and could be read to include anyone who even complains about public services.
The second article in question, Article 312, is arguably yet more controversial as it was originally introduced to counter Kurdish and Islamic activity. It rules against anyone who "openly incites people to hate and hostility by underlining class, racial, religious, sectarian or regional differences". The basic principles behind the article are commendable, but implementation has been a difficulty in the past, with even the Minister of Justice Sami Turk admitting in January that it had been misinterpreted in the past. Over the years it has been used as a toll with which to combat "terrorism" in Turkey. Again, critics have claimed that alterations to this article have done little to clarify the issue.
Some of the most ardent supporters of the changes in Article 312 have been members of the junior coalition partner the National Movement Party (MHP) and its leader Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli. He claimed that the amendments were made in line with Turkey's National Programme for joining the EU and that the article and its changes were defending social peace in Turkey. Furthermore, he said that the changes introduced a distinct definition between freedom of speech and expression and acts aimed at destabilising public order. Prominent in the nationalist's argument was that retaining the article kept a lid on Kurdish activities that threaten the Turkish state. As regards the necessity to bring Turkish freedoms closer to those of the EU, he suggested that Europeans did not understand the terrorist threat that Turkey is facing, and that he would not support complete compliance with those demands.
The general parliamentary discussion of the proposed bill on January 23rd degenerated into an acrimonious argument, largely between the three coalition parties of the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the MHP, and all the opposition parties. Of those in opposition, Tansu Ciller's True Path Party (DYP) and the two parties that emerged from the remains of the Virtue Party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Saadet Party (SP), have been the most vocal. AKP leader Tayyip Erdogan has the most reason to promote the complete transformation or abolishing of the articles, as he was convicted under Article 312 in 1999.
Even if the EU approves of the changes made to the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Law, Turkey still has a long way to go in fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria as set out in the Accession Partnership Accord. Turkish officials have recently claimed that 60% of the short-term criteria had been completed ahead of the March 2002 deadline, but commentators suggest that this is largely wishful thinking. According to some critical EU officials, laws in Europe exist to protect the citizens, whilst those in Turkey exist to protect the state.
However, there have been some important positive developments in the arena of EU-Turkish relations, with France and Spain reportedly to be applying pressure on Greece to withdraw its veto of the proposed European rapid reaction force. After lengthy negotiations Turkey, NATO and the EU finally came to a conclusion late last year on how Turkey should be involved in the deployment and planning of operations, only for the agreement to be vetoed by Greece. A solution to the Cyprus problem would hopefully remove much of the cause for tension between Turkey and Greece, but as direct talks in Cyprus are only in their early stages, no quick results are expected.