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Turkish Leader Warns EU to Stay Out of Domestic Matters

European officials have expressed alarm over the nation's proposal to criminalize adultery.

September 18, 2004|Amberin Zaman | Special to The Times

ANKARA, Turkey — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the European Union on Friday against meddling in Turkey's internal affairs, the latest salvo in an escalating battle with the EU over a proposal to criminalize adultery.

"We are Turkey, and the Turkish people will make their own decisions," Erdogan said during a news conference after a meeting of the executive council of his ruling Justice and Development Party, which has Islamic roots. "Joining the European Union is not the be-all and end-all."

EU officials have repeatedly warned against efforts by conservative Turkish lawmakers to reinstate laws making marital infidelity a crime. That step would jeopardize efforts by this predominantly Muslim and officially secular nation to join the 25-member bloc.

"Such provisions would certainly cast doubts on the direction of Turkey's reform efforts and strengthen the hands of those in Europe who oppose Turkey's membership," European Commission spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori told reporters Friday in Brussels.

EU leaders are scheduled to decide in December whether to open negotiations with Turkey on becoming part of the alliance.

The controversy over adultery erupted this month when the Turkish government announced plans to reinstate laws to punish unfaithful spouses. Under a previous law scrapped in 1996, a woman who cheated on her husband once could be sentenced to up to three years in prison. Men had to be shown to have cheated for a prolonged period 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.

The proposal was part of a reorganization of the penal code. Lawmakers approved about 340 changes, including stiffer penalties for torture and fewer curbs on free expression. The ruling party said Tuesday that it would retract the adultery provision. On Thursday, however, parliament leaders temporarily retracted the entire package after members of Erdogan's party demanded that the adultery proposal be included.

The move has exposed the ideological fault lines in the party while reviving suspicions among pro-secular Turks about Erdogan's Islamist background.

When Erdogan took power nearly two years ago, he said that he no longer believed in mixing religion with politics and that his main priority was to lead Turkey into the EU. The government has since approved a set of sweeping reforms, among them laws that dilute the influence of Turkey's powerful military leaders and enable the country's long-repressed Kurdish minority to broadcast and publish in their banned language.

Erdogan's support for the adultery bill, which he said would help "defend families' honor," is seen as an effort to appease his conservative flank.

The conservatives have been stepping up pressure on Erdogan, who has shied away from meeting their demands for fear of provoking the ire of Turkey's fiercely pro-secular generals.

The military, which has seized power three times in the last four decades, forced Turkey's first Islamist-led government to step down in 1997 after a stormy year in office, saying the administration was seeking to introduce Islamic rule. Many senior generals are openly hostile to the current government.

"The paradox for Erdogan is that his survival is pinned on ensuring that EU membership remains on track because it's the only way to keep the army out of politics," said Faruk Demir, an Ankara-based analyst.

"But he also has to satisfy his right flank, which means backing measures that contradict EU values."

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