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Turkey Scraps Adultery Law Plan

Proposal raised fears of 'honor killings' of women and threatened to disrupt the country's bid to join the EU.

September 15, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Bowing to intense pressure from European leaders and local feminist groups, Turkey's Islam-based ruling party on Tuesday shelved a plan to criminalize adultery, a proposal that had threatened to disrupt the country's bid to join the European Union.

The decision came after a meeting Tuesday between two leading Cabinet ministers and the head of the main pro-secular opposition party, which opposed the plan. The talks took place just hours before parliament was to begin days of debate over a broad range of amendments, including the measure, to the country's extensive penal code in the coming days.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek of the ruling Justice and Development Party said after the meeting that a deal had been struck with the opposition Republican People's Party to present a joint package of amendments to which both parties could agree.

"We have an agreement to put forward a law which guarantees rights and freedoms," Cicek said.

He would not confirm that the adultery proposal had been dropped, a decision that might embarrass the ruling party before its more religious followers. But several government officials and ruling party leaders speaking on condition of anonymity said the measure would not be offered.

The proposed changes to the penal code, which include measures sought by the European Union to stiffen the penalties for torture, precede a crucial report due next month that will assess Turkey's progress in conforming with criteria for joining the organization. EU leaders are scheduled to decide in December whether to open accession negotiations with Turkey.

The attempt to criminalize adultery stunned European leaders and outraged Turkish liberals. The EU's commissioner for enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, termed the measure "a joke" and said it would leave Europeans with the impression that the Turkish government was steering this officially secular but predominantly Muslim country toward religious rule. That in turn would provide ammunition for members who oppose the union's inclusion of what would be its first predominantly Muslim member.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Monday: "If this proposal, which I gather is only a proposal, in respect of adultery were to become firmly fixed into law, then that would create difficulties for Turkey."

Rights advocates warned that criminalizing adultery would encourage "honor killings" of women accused of staining their families' reputation by engaging in even innocent relations with men who are not their spouses or relatives.

Hundreds of Turkish women waving placards that read "Keep your hands off my body" marched into parliament Tuesday to protest the proposal. Fatmagul Berktay, an academic at Istanbul University and a veteran feminist, said it remained unclear whether the government would proceed with a number of other controversial proposals that would include penalizing sex between unmarried couples younger than 18, the legal age of consent here.

Asked why the government had tabled the proposal to criminalize adultery, Guldal Aksit, a minister in charge of women's affairs, said she "had no idea." Aksit argued, however, that the aim of the proposal had been to treat women and men equally.

Under laws that were scrapped in 1996, a woman found to have cheated once on her husband could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Men had to be shown to have been unfaithful for a prolonged period of time before they could be convicted of adultery. Under the proposed law, men and women would be prosecuted on equal terms and would face the same three years in prison.

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