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Life Imprisonment to Replace Death Penalty in Turkish Reform Package - 2002-08-02

Turkey's parliament has voted Friday in favor of abolishing the death penalty. The measure is part of a package of reforms the parliament is considering to enhance Turkey's chances of gaining entry into the European Union.

Friday's session of the 550-member parliament was tense as nationalist lawmakers fought to quash the proposal to abolish the death penalty during peacetime.

The nationalists, who share power in Turkey's three-party ruling coalition, insist that removing the death penalty is tantamount to treason because the measure would save the life of Kurdish rebel chief Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan, who is now in prison, was convicted of treason by a Turkish court in 1999 and sentenced to death.

Despite the nationalists' appeals, 256 of the lawmakers voted in favor of replacing capital punishment with life in prison; 162 of them voted against it.

The vote to abolish the death penalty is part of a package of reforms the parliament is considering, and the ban will not become law until the whole package is approved by parliament.

Ocalan is not the only person who would benefit by the end of the death penalty. Fifty death row prisoners will see their sentences commuted to life imprisonment if the reform package is approved. However, capital punishment would remain on the books to be used in times of war or during the threat of war.

In addition to banning the death penalty, parliament also voted in favor of amending an article of the constitution that limits freedom of expression and under which scores of politicians and dissident academics, writers and activists have been jailed.

The reforms are meant to satisfy EU conditions for launching membership talks with Turkey. The full package is expected to be voted on Saturday.

Western diplomats in the capital, Ankara, hailed Friday's vote as a highly encouraging sign that Turkey was determined to raise its democracy to West European standards. But many warn that Turkey must not merely rewrite its laws, but implement them fully before it can begin membership negotiations with the European Union.