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Turkish Parliament Approves Constitutional Amendments - 2002-03-26

The Turkish Parliament Tuesday approved several constitutional amendments that are designed to improve Turkey's chances for entry into the European Union.

The constitutional amendments were overwhelmingly approved by the 550 member Turkish parliament. Under one of them, banning political parties will become much tougher. That is good news for pro-Kurdish and pro-Islamic groups that have been the frequent target of constitutional bans.

Another amendment that was approved says members of the security forces who are convicted of torture will now have to pay financial liabilities arising from such actions themselves. Torture victims in Turkey frequently turn to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to seek damages from the Turkish government because Turkish courts do not often rule in favor of such victims. The measure is aimed at discouraging security forces from torturing detainees - a practice human rights groups in Turkey say is widespread.

Western diplomats in Ankara have applauded the changes, saying they are positive steps toward meeting Western European standards of government. The parliament is set to pass another five amendments that will, among other things, make it easier for students to organize and to stage peaceful demonstrations.

But there are many more conditions Turkey must meet if it is to resume membership negotiations with the European Union. They include reducing the influence of the military in politics, abolishing capital punishment and easing bans on broadcasting and education in the Kurdish language. Ethnic Kurds make up about 20 percent of Turkey's population of 65 million.

The ultra-nationalist wing of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's three-way ruling coalition is opposed to such changes. The party, known as the Nationalist Action Party, says that expanding cultural freedoms for the Kurds will fan separatist sentiment and could lead to the establishment of an independent Kurdish state carved out of Turkey.

Earlier this week, leaders of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) announced that they had officially renounced their campaign for independence. They said they would take up arms again only if their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, were to be executed. The group waged a 15-year armed campaign for independence that virtually ceased in 1999 following the capture of Ocalan by Turkish special forces in Kenya. He has been convicted of treason and is now in prison.

In line with its attempts to move from the battlefield to the political arena, the PKK has changed its name to the People's Freedom Party. It says it will lay down its arms for good if the Turkish government grants a full amnesty for all its fighters and leadership cadres.

Turkey's military and political leaders term the move a ploy aimed at allowing the rebels to regroup and re-arm themselves. Turkey says only rebels who were not directly involved in the insurgency will not face prosecution.