ISTANBUL — Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's democratic reform package is facing criticism following the Justice Ministry's revelation that 20,000 people have been convicted under the country's anti-terrorism law during the last four years, 8,000 of whom were jailed just in the last 12 months. Most of them, including journalists and members of the country's legal Kurdish party, were jailed for non-violent offenses.
Turkey’s anti-terror law is facing growing national and international criticism. The law was introduced in 1991 to counter an insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. But concerns have been growing that the law is increasingly used to target critics of the government.
Emma Sinclair Webb, senior researcher on Turkey for the U.S.-based organization Human rights Watch, says there has been an alarming increase in the use of the anti-terror law.
"According to official figures of the Justice Ministry, in the last four years an enormous number of people - somewhere around 40,000 - have been prosecuted for membership of armed organizations, and half of them have received convictions under that law. Now it applies disproportionately to Kurds in Turkey, but it also applies to other groups: it has been used against leftists, it has been used against journalists, students, for activities which could not in any way be counted as terrorism," said Webb.
The failure to reform the law in last month’s government democracy package was criticized domestically and internationally. Richard Howitt, a British member of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs and human rights committees, said the Turkish government had missed a "key opportunity" to change the anti-terror law. Adding to those concerns, the anti-terror law is now being used against those involved in last June’s anti government protests. The European Union’s annual progress report released this week strongly criticized Turkey over freedom of expression and assembly, and called for legal and judicial reform.
In launching his democracy package, Prime Minister Erdogan tacitly acknowledged its shortcomings by acknowledging the need for further reforms.
"These reforms will never be the last and there will be other reforms to enhance freedom and democracy in Turkey. Opposition parties are trying to exploit the sensitivities and fears of the people over the reforms," said Erdogan.
Observers say these popular sensitivities are especially important given the local, presidential and general elections scheduled to take place in Turkey over the next 18 months.
The image of being weak on terrorism is unlikely to win votes among the ruling AK Party’s core constituents, according to Cengiz Aktar, a political columnist for the Turkish newspaper Taraf.
"The prime minister, like every other politician, wants to stay in power. He thinks the only solid constituency he can gain votes from is Turkish nationalist voters," said Aktar.
The thousands of members of Turkey’s legal pro-Kurdish Party, the BDP, would be among the main beneficiaries of any reform of the anti-terror law. The BDP claims over 6,000 of its members are being held under the law, including dozens of mayors. Their release is a key demand of the PKK as part of the Kurdish rebel group's peace talks with the government. But those talks are currently stalled.
According to international human rights groups, the anti-terror law is the reason why Turkey is the world’s biggest jailer of journalists. Award-winning journalist Ahmet Şık, who is facing 15 years in jail under the law, says it is a threat to democracy in Turkey.
"We live in a time in which students demanding free education are immediately labeled as terrorists. Journalists are also seen as terrorists. There is an incredible regime of suppression, he says: whoever raises their voice in opposition can be imprisoned on terrorism charges," said Şık.
The government rejects such criticism, insisting that it has introduced unprecedented democratic reforms during its decade in power. But observers warn that the voices of journalists like Şık, who addressed the European Parliament last year, are expected to weigh heavily on EU leaders next month, when they are expected to decide whether or not to put Turkey’s membership bid back on track.