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Turkish Human Rights Reforms Called Inadequate by Advocates

A new set of reforms passed by the Turkish parliament to improve the country's human rights record in order win approval for full membership in the European Union does little to reduce curbs on free expression, leading rights advocates here said.

The constitutional amendment package by lawmakers in the 550 member chamber late Wednesday aims to make big changes in the laws that have been used to jail hundreds of intellectuals and activists in the country over the years. Under the new law, the maximum number of days under which detainees accused of so-called terror crimes can be held without trial was reduced to a maximum of seven days.

Prior to the amendments, anyone accused of sympathizing with rebels of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, of committing similar "terror" offenses" could be held indefinitely without access to a lawyer. As a result, thousands of prisoners are languishing in jails across the four provinces that remain under emergency rule and where special anti-terror laws remain in force.

The biggest impact of the package will be felt in four mostly Kurdish provinces where the bulk of abuses continue to occur, according to Husnu Ondul, Chairman of Turkey's Human Rights Association, a leading rights group.

Mr. Ondul, in a telephone interview with VOA, hailed the changes as an extremely important step toward ending torture.

Turkey, which becaome an official candidate to join the EU in 1999, continues to be widely criticized for widespread torture committed by members of the country's police and army forces. Mr. Ondul says that most of the reported abuses occur during pre-trial detention periods. Reduction of that period, he argues, will narrow the scope for torture.

But, critics of the new reform package say it does not go far enough.

For example, amendments to laws in Turkey's penal code which punishes acts of insulting and defaming the Turkish nation remained unchanged, while the maximum jail term it carries was reduced to three years from six years. As a result, the broad interpretation of the law will continue to result in many people, such as academics, journalists and politicians, being hauled into court for criticizing state authorities.

Professor Nevzat Toroslu, the head of the Ankara University's Penal Law Department, points out that because the laws remain vague, the interpretation of the laws is left in the hands of the judges.

Emergency rule was introduced throughout the largely Kurdish provinces after the PKK launched its armed insurgency in 1984 to establish an independent Kurdish state. As the PKK began to scale down its attacks, the Ankara government began to phase out emergency rule throughout the Kurdish regions.

And an atmosphere of peace has been prevailing ever since 1999. That is when the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire following the capture that year of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

The Turkish government for its part says its war against the PKK will not end until the rebels put down their arms and surrender. And it continues to extend emergency rule in the provinces of Tunceli, Hakkari, Diyarbakir and Sirnak, where sympathy for the rebels remains strong.

The nationalist wing of Turkey's ruling three party coalition led by deputy prime minister, Devlet Bahceli is being widely blamed for the lack of progress in democratic reforms.

Mr Bahceli's party remains firmly opposed to any reforms that would grant the country's estimated 12 million Kurds greater cultural and political freedoms.

Indeed, the nationalists were pressing to expand the scope of so called thought crimes against the state. But they failed to have their way after Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's Democratic Left Party and the pro-reform Motherland party wing of the government joined forces with opposition groups in the Parliament.

Mr. Ondul agrees that Turkey has a long way to go before it raises its democracy to European standards. But, he adds, it is moving in the right direction at least.