- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Amidst an increasingly acerbic political debate, the Turkish parliament has amended parts of a penal code in an attempt to ease the path to negotiations for EU membership.

Diplomatic sources said the proposed text attempts to appease the nationalist opposition but falls short of satisfying those who claim that Article 301 of the code, which imposes a penalty for “insulting Turkishness,” violates freedom of expression.

The amended version eliminates the term “Turkishness” and reduces the penalty for “denigrating the Turkish nation” from three to two years in prison. Dozens of journalists and writers, including Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, have been tried under the article, mainly for writing about the treatment of the Kurdish minority and of the World War I massacres of Armenians, which Turkey persistently denies. Criticism of the Turkish army also is considered to be a crime.

Critics of the proposed amendment say the governing Justice and Development party (AKP) has mainly “tinkered with the wording of the law” but kept most of its problematic features.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, has asked that the article be repealed because “it judicially limits freedom of expression and validates legal and other attacks against journalists.”

The Turkish opposition Nationalist Action Party has campaigned against any changes, saying the law is part of the heritage of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic, who struggled to instill patriotic values and strong national identity in a country once known as “the sick man of Europe.”

Cengiz Aktar, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said the way Article 301 has been amended is unlikely to impress the European Union.

Besides, he said, other articles in the penal code “kill freedom of speech.”

Turkey’s negotiations for EU membership have stumbled over several issues. The government insists it will continue reforms despite considerable opposition in Europe to admit a predominantly Muslim nation of more than 70 million.

On Monday, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik joined other European officials who have suggested that a formula of association would be more practical than full Turkish membership.

“I could imagine a Turkish-European community as another rational, realistic alternative,” she said while visiting Ankara. The idea was rejected by Turkey and mooted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan yesterday reiterated Turkish opposition to any formula other than full EU membership. “We view Turkey’s accession to the EU as one of the most important peace projects of the 21st century,” he said.

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