ISTANBUL — Turkey's proposed judicial reform package may not go far enough, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. The proposed reforms are intended to end Turkey's record run of violations of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin claims his judicial reform package, introduced in parliament earlier this month, seeks to end the country’s negative image at the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR.
Ergin admits that Turkey is the country with the highest number of violations at the ECHR, but said his government had examined those violations and drafted this proposal to remedy violations originating from Turkish legislation.
The reform package will end the time limitation for prosecuting torture cases, but not for cases of extra-judicial killings. Bail conditions have been eased in anti-terror cases. The country’s controversial terrorist propaganda law is also being narrowed to only include cases that directly incite violence. The reforms are backed by human rights groups and the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join. But Emma Sinclair Webb, Turkey researcher for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, while welcoming such reforms, points out their effect may be limited.
"Most people are not in jail for terrorist propaganda, but are in jail for membership of an armed organization," said Sinclair Webb. "There, the threshold of evidence, the burden of proof is so much lower, that all sorts of legitimate activities get counted as membership of a terrorist organization even though the person has not advocated violence or directly committed violence activities."
Under the current anti-terror law, any individual can be considered to be a member of a terrorist organization if they write or say a phrase considered to be the same view of that terror group. The law is responsible for the jailing of scores of journalists, making Turkey, according to human rights groups and the EU, the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Of the 38,000 convictions worldwide for terrorism offenses since 2001, Turkey accounts for a third, according to a survey carried out last year by the Associated Press. The overwhelming majority of cases are against Kurdish activists in connection with the conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebel group the PKK. Gultan Kisanak of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, claims the government reforms don’t go far enough.
"There are anti-democratic laws, and unfortunately this package of legal reforms is insufficient, he said, adding that he sees it as "a waste of parliament's time." Kisanak says steps need to be taken to lift barriers to Kurdish rights, including the rights of thousands of Kurdish prisoners.
That disappointment comes as government-inspired peace efforts to end the conflict with the PKK is starting a bear fruit, with the rebel group last week announcing a ceasefire. The U.S. based group Human Rights Watch claimed in a press release claimed a more ambitious judicial reform package that would free Kurdish activists could expedite the current peace process.
But observers point out peace efforts are at critical point and the prime minister has made clear there can be no concessions or even formalization of peace talks until the PKK withdraws and disarms. The justice minister has ruled out any connection between the reform package and the peace process, insisting it is only aimed at bringing Turkey into line with the European Court. But Riza Turmen, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights and now a member of the main opposition, claims this latest reform package, like its three predecessors, promises more than it delivers.
"All of these reform packages, they do bring some cosmetic changes, but they do not improve the overall situation in Turkey," said Turmen. "When you come to the fourth package, there will still be violations of freedom of expression. There will not be any major changes as far as the judgments of European Court of Human Rights."
Turkey now has 17,000 outstanding cases at the European Court - second only to Russia. Analysts say the ultimate test of the effectiveness of the current reform package will be the number of cases that reach the court.