Turkey delays easing law on writers

SwissInfo, Switzerland
Jan 28 2008

Turkey delays easing law on writers
By Hidir Goktas

ANKARA (Reuters) – An EU-backed reform of a Turkish law used to
prosecute writers has been held up while government moves to lift a
ban on Islamic headscarves in university, a senior deputy from the
ruling AK Party said on Monday.

Turkey is under pressure from the European Union to amend article 301
of its penal code, which makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime and
has been used to prosecute dozens of writers, including Nobel
Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk.

The EU has said the free speech reform, which has already been
subject to repeated delays, is a crucial test of the country’s
commitment to political reform.

But the headscarf issue has now leapt to the top of the domestic
agenda.

"Article 301 is on our agenda but there has been a delay because of
the agenda suddenly shifting to the headscarf. Let’s clear up the
headscarf issue first," Nurettin Canikli, deputy head of the AKP’s
parliamentary group, told reporters.

On Monday, the Islamic-rooted AK Party was fine-tuning the planned
headscarf changes with a key opposition party, the nationalist MHP,
which strongly opposes amending article 301.

The two parties agreed last week to cooperate in lifting the ban on
women students wearing headscarves in universities.

Canikli stressed the ban would only be lifted for students in higher
education and that it would remain in place for civil servants.

His comments came as the AK Party launched a probe into one of its
deputies in the central Anatolian city of Konya who said the party’s
goal was to lift the ban entirely. The MP could face party
disciplinary proceedings.

The talks with the MHP were designed to clarify the new boundaries of
the headscarf ban, Canikli said, adding they would be completed on
Monday.

SENSITIVITIES TO REFORM

President Abdullah Gul said on Friday he backed the government’s
proposal on lifting the headscarf ban, a move which is fiercely
opposed by the secular establishment.

The secular elite, which includes the powerful army and judiciary,
views the ban as vital for the separation of state and religion in
the mainly Muslim but constitutionally secular country.

There are also strong domestic sensitivities on the reform of Article
301, which is seen as an obstacle to Turkey joining the EU, with
which it started membership talks in 2005.

The delays in easing restrictions on free speech are seen as a
measure of government sensitivity to attacks from nationalist parties
on the issue as it seeks to avoid the impression it is bowing to EU
pressure.

Under the government’s proposal the justice ministry will have to
give permission for cases to be opened under Article 301, a move
designed to prevent nationalist prosecutors with their own political
agenda exploiting the law.

The revised article would target insults to "the Turkish people", not
the vaguer concept of "Turkishness" as at present. Under the changes,
prosecutors would also need to prove an intention to insult before
proceeding with a case.

The article has been used especially against writers such as Pamuk
commenting on the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915-16.
Turkey denies claims by Armenians and many Western historians that
the killings constituted genocide.

(Reporting by Hidir Goktas, writing by Daren Butler, editing by Ralph
Boulton)

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