Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Gov’t ready to take steps to amend Article 301

Today's Zaman Ankara

Within two weeks the Turkish government will assess an amendment on a controversial law that has been widely considered as a stumbling block for freedom of expression in Turkey, Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin said Tuesday.

Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin says the government will assess an amendment on the Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code within the next two weeks.
Şahin told reporters that his ministry will hand the draft amendment to Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which makes it a crime to "insult Turkishness," to the cabinet within 15 days.

Turkey has been under heavy pressure from the EU to amend or scrap Article 301, which has been used to prosecute Turkish writers and intellectuals, notably for comments on the killings of Anatolian Armenians in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire. Last month, the EU's executive commission criticized Turkey for not carrying out any substantial reforms in the past two years and urged the government, which was given a strong mandate when it was re-elected to power, to reinvigorate the stalled reform process.

The most important element in the draft amendment is that it requires prosecutors to secure permission from the Justice Ministry to launch court trials against the expression of opinions, Şahin said. This change is expected to lead to a decrease in the number of cases opened under Article 301. The term "Turkishness" in the article is expected to be changed to "the Turkish Republic," while the expression "insulting Turkishness" is expected to be replaced by "insulting the Turkish nation."

Discussions on the amendment are being carried out both by lawyers from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and the Justice Ministry, Şahin noted.

The government has so far refused to heed EU demands to amend the article without delay, saying the issue will be taken up as part of its broader drive to reform the current Constitution, which was drafted under military rule in 1982.

Releasing its annual progress report in November, the European Commission called on Ankara to make "significant further efforts" toward improving freedom of expression and religion, stressing that more people were prosecuted under Article 301 last year than in 2005. It particularly urged steps to repeal or amend Article 301, saying accession talks will not be opened on at least one of 35 negotiation chapters if the law is not amended or repealed.

Two years ago the government tried Nobel Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk under article 301 for his remarks on the events of 1915-16, but he was acquitted on a legal technicality. Claiming that the killings of Anatolian Armenians amounted to genocide is a criminal offense in Turkey under Article 301. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has recommended that the EU not extend accession talks to the key areas of justice and human rights until the article is changed.

Critics say Turkey's centre-right government is dragging its feet, fearing that amending the law could spark a nationalist backlash at a time when EU membership is becoming less popular among Turks. EU officials said the law was poisoning Turkey's relations with Armenia and that it is a burden on the media and NGOs in Turkey.

Prominent Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink, who was shot dead in İstanbul in January by an ultranationalist youth, had also been handed a suspended jail sentence under Article 301 for his comments on the Armenian issue. Tens of thousands of people marched through İstanbul at his funeral to protest against ultranationalist violence. As the first anniversary of Dink's assassination on Jan. 19 approaches, it is not yet clear when the cabinet will approve the amendment on Article 301. Earlier this month veteran publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, who could receive a jail sentence of up to three years for insulting national identity, described Article 301 as "very dangerous."

"If writers and journalists are depicted as traitors or enemies of Turkey, it becomes difficult to be in front of Turkish public opinion. It opens the door to being lynched or killed by ultranationalist gangs," Zarakolu said, citing the example of Dink.

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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