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Turkey Passes More Reforms in Quest for EU Membership

Package grants new freedoms to minority Kurds, 'goes beyond' European demands.

June 20, 2003|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Parliament on Thursday passed reforms aimed at increasing freedoms for ethnic Kurds and other Turkish citizens in order to lead this predominantly Muslim nation closer to its long-cherished goal of European Union membership.

Lawmakers worked through the night to push through the sixth in a series of reform bills, in time for an EU summit that was to kick off today in Thessaloniki, Greece. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to attend.

"This package goes beyond what the European Union is demanding of us," said Emin Sirin, a lawmaker from the ruling Justice and Development Party.

The reforms are likely to give Turkey's fragile democracy and its aspirations to join the EU a significant boost. The bill allows the country's long-repressed 12-million-member Kurdish minority to broadcast for the first time in its own language over private and state-owned radio and television channels.

The Kurds will also be permitted to give their children Kurdish names, a punishable offense under Turkey's draconian anti-terrorism laws. In addition, a controversial law that bans separatist propaganda and has long been used to justify the confinement of thousands of intellectuals, journalists and dissidents -- mainly Kurds -- is to be scrapped.

The legislation also repeals an article of the penal code that allows for reduced sentences for those who commit "honor crimes" -- a euphemism for the killing of women accused of bringing shame to their families, in some cases for offenses as minor as holding hands with a man who is not their husband.

Turkey's influential military leaders have expressed concerns over some aspects of the bill.

Gen. Tuncer Kilinc, secretary-general of the National Security Council, a body in which top generals and leading politicians shape government policy, said in a recent letter to officials that lifting the ban on separatist propaganda would undermine the unity of the state.

But civilian leaders say threats to national unity subsided after rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party called off a 15-year rebellion following the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999.

In a sign that the military's influence is beginning to wane, the government for the first time presented the current reform package to the parliament without securing the approval of the council, where the generals have long had the final say.

Sirin said a future package of reforms will meet EU demands to reduce the role of the military in Turkish politics. A civilian is to be appointed to the post of secretary-general of the council, and the military budget, which is secret, will probably be opened to civilian scrutiny.

The generals might not agree.

The military, which has seized power in bloodless coups and brought down the country's first Islamist-led government in 1997 over thinly supported charges that the government sought to introduce religious rule, makes no secret of its distrust of Erdogan and his party.

Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, began his career in an overtly pro-Islamic and anti-Western party. He was forced to step down after being convicted of seeking to incite a religious rebellion by reciting an Islamist poem during a rally.

Erdogan has disavowed his Islamist past, saying religion and politics should remain separate.

He says that securing Turkey's membership in the EU is one of his chief goals. But the generals remain unswayed and accuse him of replacing top bureaucrats with his Islamist associates.

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