Turkey has in recent years adopted a series of democratic reforms in an effort to meet European Union standards for membership. But human rights groups say they are seeing increasing human rights abuses in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of the country that could undermine Turkey's membership negotiations. The concerns arise from increasing violence between security forces and rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK.
Reyhan Yalcindag is the deputy chairman of Turkey's Human Rights Association. A long-time government critic, she acknowledges that recent reforms introduced by the ruling Justice and Development Party have bolstered Turkey's shaky democracy.
"As human rights defenders, we gave very big importance to the last legal amendments, for example, abolishing the death penalty, lifting the state of emergency situation, etc., to decrease the period of detention, these were all very positive steps," she said.
Such changes helped Turkey persuade the European Union last October to launch negotiations that Turkey hopes will lead to its membership in the 25-member bloc in the next 10-to-15 years.
But, as clashes between Turkish security forces and rebels of the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party spread across the impoverished southeast region, human rights defenders say the kinds of abuses that were long cited by the EU for rebuffing Turkey's bid for membership are once again on the rise.
The violence resumed when the PKK, citing the government's refusal to negotiate a lasting peace, ended a five-year truce in June 2004. Scores of rebels and Turkish soldiers have died in the fighting.
Yalcindag cites violent demonstrations that erupted in the region's largest city, Diyarbakir, and neighboring Batman last month during the funerals of four PKK fighters. Though the government has never issued a statement on how many people died in the violence, human rights monitors say at least 13 civilians, four of them children, died in clashes with police.
"You have to respect the right to life of the demonstrators, I mean," she added. "The result must not be 10 people killed in Diyarbakir, or one child killed in Batman. Two persons were killed in Kiziltepe [Mardin province]. Hundreds of people were wounded or transferred to prisons and tortured. We do have medical reports."
The London-based rights group, Amnesty International, has joined calls for the Turkish government to investigate allegations of abuse during the protest rallies. In a statement, the organization said, "in light of the reported decline in the use of torture in recent years" Amnesty International was "particularly disturbed at allegations of torture, or ill treatment of detainees, including beatings, death threats and being stripped naked and sprayed with cold water."
Abdullah Gul is Turkey's foreign minister and a leading proponent of Turkey's membership in the EU. In a recent interview, Gul told VOA that there was no question of his government slowing the pace of reforms. Gul says the PKK is seeking to provoke his government into conflict, in order to derail the reform process, because, he says, the reforms have weakened the PKK's appeal among the Kurds.
"We believe democracy will isolate the terrorists," he said. "So, that is the best way to fight terrorists. Of course, we will take more efficient and effective measures to fight terrorism, but, we will keep this line very consciously."
Proposed measures to deal more effectively with the PKK, which is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations, include stiffening Turkey's controversial anti-terror law.
Under the proposed amendments, carrying pro-PKK banners would be deemed a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Spreading PKK propaganda would carry a maximum penalty of five years.
Huseyin Kalkan is the mayor of Batman, and belongs to Turkey's largest pro-Kurdish party, the Democratic Society Party, which controls the majority of municipalities in the Kurdish region.
Kalkan says there is growing concern that Turkey is slipping back into what he calls "the scary days."
Kalkan says he and scores of his fellow party members are already facing a slew of court cases under existing laws. Prosecutors are seeking a 10-year sentence for Kalkan on charges of aiding a terrorist organization. He says his alleged offense was calling on PKK demonstrators in Batman to disperse peacefully after exercising their democratic right to protest.
Kalkan cautions that such legal crackdowns may help the PKK find new recruits.
Kalkan concludes that, in the absence of a full democracy, some young Kurds may once again turn to the mountains, where the rebels are based, in the hope of finding a solution to their problems.