30.04.2008 12:11 GMT+04:00

/PanARMENIAN.Net/ The Turkish parliament Wednesday passed a
long-awaited amendment to a law penalizing insults to "Turkishness"
that has drawn strong EU criticism as a threat to free speech in
the country.

The amendment, softening article 301 of the penal code, was adopted
with the support of 250 MPs in the 550-member house at the end of
an eight-hour debate that started Tuesday afternoon and continued
throughout the night amid fierce opposition from nationalist deputies.

Under the amendment, "Turkishness" - a term criticized as too broad
and vague - was replaced with the "Turkish nation" and the envisaged
jail term decreased from three to two years, allowing the sentence
to be suspended or converted to a fine.

In a bid to make trials under the law more difficult, the provision
now requires the justice minister's approval before prosecutors can
launch cases. Also, a section that called for increased sanctions
for such crimes committed abroad was removed from the law.

Dozens of intellectuals, including 2006 Nobel literature laureate Orhan
Pamuk, have been tried under article 301 and although some have been
convicted, - including slain ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink -
their sentences were suspended and no one has been jailed so far.

The article has mainly targeted people contesting the official line on
the World War I massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, which,
much to Turkey's ire, many countries have recognized as Genocide.

The European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join, has long
criticized the law as a threat to freedom of speech.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso said during a visit to
Ankara earlier this month that the amendment plan was "a step in the
right direction."

The many critics of the article argue that the revision is inadequate
and the provision should be scrapped altogether from the penal code.

The EU has repeatedly warned Turkey that respect for free speech will
be a test of its commitment to align with the bloc's democracy norms.

Meanwhile, Turkish opposition describes the motion as fawning upon
the European Union.

Turkey has so far opened accession talks in only six of the 35 policy
areas that candidates are required to complete amid a row over the
Mediterranean island of Cyprus and strong opposition to its membership
in some EU countries, the AFP reports.