Rights groups blast Turkish penal code on day one
By Gareth Jones

ANKARA, June 1 (Reuters) - Human rights activists and liberal media
blasted a new Turkish penal code that came into force on Wednesday,
saying it undermined freedom of expression in the European Union
candidate country.

Passing a revised penal code is a key condition for Turkey before it
can start EU entry talks in October.

EU diplomats in Ankara said they would carefully monitor implementation
of the code, but said Turkey had for the time being met their
expectations by passing the legislation on time.

The new code improves women's rights and imposes tougher penalties
for rape, torture, smuggling of human beings and so-called "honour
killings" in which women are killed by relatives for offences deemed
to tarnish the family name.

But it also envisages jail sentences for those found guilty of
insulting anyone simply for being a Turk or state institutions,
or of harming national interests and security.

"Now you are less free," said the headline of the liberal Radikal
daily.

"The penal code is an obstacle to freedom of information," it said,
noting harsher penalties for journalists for a range of offences
including publication of classified information.

Sanar Yurdatapan, a rights activist, told Reuters the code was "worse
than the old one" on matters of free expression.

In a mark of protest, he said he would invite 100 well-known Turks
to sign a declaration containing views outlawed under the new code,
daring state prosecutors to take action.

For example, he said, the signatories would demand the removal of
Turkish troops from Cyprus and would also urge Turkey to recognise
as genocide the killing of Armenians during World War One -- both
opinions which could theoretically land them in jail under the terms
of the new penal code.

JUDGES HOLD KEY

"We would have liked to see the government remove all offences
for non-violent freedom of expression from the code. But now the
responsibility lies with the judiciary," said Jonathan Sugden of
Human Rights Watch in London.

Turkey is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights,
whose provisions take precedence over domestic laws.

"It is politically harder for a government to abolish repressive
articles than it is for a judge to make a ruling at a later date
striking them down. The government probably wanted to duck a fight
with vested interests such as the security forces," Sugden said.

He said Turkey had a robust civil society which would fight hard to
halt cases brought against freedom of expression.

Turkey's parliament approved the penal code last Friday but President
Ahmet Necdet Sezer has been studying last-minute amendments. This
means that an earlier -- and critics say more restrictive -- version
of the code came into force on Wednesday.

Many expect Sezer, a staunch secularist, to veto the amendments because
they include softer penalties for teaching unauthorised courses on
the Koran, Islam's holy book. Turkish secularists fear this will
weaken the state's ability to control radical Islamist groups.

But whether he wields his veto or not, the bulk of the present penal
code is expected to remain in force.

Some Turkish newspapers highlighted some of the more progressive
aspects of the new code.

For example, it envisages 25 years jail for those who fire guns
into the air after soccer matches or at weddings. It also increases
penalties for driving through traffic lights when they are red,
playing loud music or using mobile phones on airplanes.

06/01/05 09:37 ET