Thursday, February 08, 2007

Government gives cold shoulder to NGOs’ 301 proposals

Today's Zaman

A group of trade unions and other nongovernmental organizations announced yesterday a set of proposed changes to controversial Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, but the government is expected to discard them in possible amendments because, according to senior ruling party officials, these proposals would mean a backtrack on reforms.

After rounds of unsuccessful efforts to come up with a joint proposal to change Article 301, the NGOs finally announced a modest offer in İstanbul yesterday, which they said sets clearer limits for what would constitute insult and what would constitute criticism.

The proposal keeps a controversial reference to "Turkishness" but replaces the phrase "denigrating Turkishness" with "openly abasing and insulting Turkishness" and clarifies that Turkishness is defined in reference to Article 66 of the Constitution, which says "everyone tied to the Turkish state with bond of citizenship is a Turk."

It also reduces punishment envisioned in the Article 301 from three years in maximum to two years and deletes a provision saying that the punishment would be increased by one-third if it is committed outside Turkey.

"In its existing form (the article) is too vague and open to interpretations," said Davut Ökütçü, who heads the İstanbul-based Economic Development Foundation (İKV). "There was a need for a wording purified of vague expressions which would not open the way to unnecessary prosecution."

Senior officials in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), however, say the proposals would fail to stop prosecutions of intellectuals and activists for expressing opinions. Turkey's internationally acclaimed author Orhan Pamuk was one of those who has landed in court for "denigrating Turkishness" under Article 301, and pressure on the government to change the law has been mounting since Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who had also been tried and convicted under Article 301, was killed on Jan. 19.

"When carefully examined, the text [of the NGOs' proposal] is worse than Article 159 of the previous penal code," said AK Party deputy Mehmet Çiçek, referring to the infamous article that was scrapped as part of EU-inspired reforms in recent years. "The proposed is worse even that that article. Turkey has made a firm decision never to revert to Article 159. It is this will that enabled the EU harmonization laws."

Critics say the proposed wording is similar to that of the now defunct Article 159 and that even more people would end up in court for expressing opinion if Article 301 is amended in the way the NGOs proposed. Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, a senior member of the AK Party, also said the proposed text amounted to revival of Article 159 and said the government won't give it a serious consideration when amending Article 301.

Disappointed with the NGO proposal, the AK Party is now expected to set up a commission of deputies with expertise in legal field to draft its own proposals for a possible amendment.

Officials say the NGOs’ proposal may be integrated into these proposals. The government is planning to integrate those proposals, which reduce the maximum sentence from three years to two and delete a provision that says the punishment will be increased if the crime is committed outside Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has earlier suggested that the government would move ahead with plans to change Article 301 on its own if the NGOs fail to come up with a sound proposal.

Bozdağ: Responsibility lies with judges
Bekir Bozdağ, a member of Parliament’s Justice Commission, criticized the NGOs’ proposal to clarify the word “Turkishness” through a reference to Article 66 of the Constitution, saying this would not help stop prosecutions because court practices in the past have shown that the word “Turkishness” was construed to mean the same thing as “Turk.”

He also agreed with others in that the proposed text would mean a going back to Article 159. “If we revert to the former articles, people will ask, ‘Why have you introduced these reforms, then?’” he said. According to Bozdağ, problems with Article 301 will remain unless the judges continue to interpret the law in a restrictive manner.

CHP against amendments
The government will inform the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of its amendment plans for Article 301; however, the CHP has already closed its doors to the AK Party on this issue.

CHP deputy Orhan Eraslan, a key figure in drafting the CHP’s policies in legal issues, said: “Not even a single letter of the existing text should be changed; otherwise, you will sacrifice the sovereignty of Turkey. This is like deleting the offense of rape from the penal code on grounds that some rape convicts are killed in the prisons. Article 301 is not unique to Turkey; there are similar laws in the national codes of many countries. At this stage, let alone abolishing Article 301 completely, not even a single letter of it should be changed. Everybody acts like an expert on Article 301, and the government’s hesitation encourages the pro-abolishment group. Abolishment of Article 301 is not wanted by the Turkish nation; it is demanded by Armenia, the Armenian diaspora, the US and EU circles. Article 301 is not an obstacle before freedom of expression,” he said.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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