By Mark Bentley

April 30 2008

April 30 (Bloomberg) -- Turkey's parliament altered a law to ease
curbs on freedom of speech, a step designed to advance the nation's
bid for European Union membership.

The assembly in Ankara approved the changes to article 301 of the
penal code today by 250-65, Deputy Speaker Meral Aksener told lawmakers
after the vote in a televised address.

Article 301 has drawn criticism from the EU after prosecutors used it
to try hundreds of people for "insulting Turkishness," including Nobel
Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk and Armenian editor Hrant Dink,
who was later shot and killed by a Turkish nationalist. The EU says
it may halt Turkey's membership talks if it fails to meet the bloc's
standards for democracy.

"This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I think a lot of
people in the EU would have liked the clause to have been withdrawn
altogether," said William Hale, author of a 2002 history of Turkish
foreign policy, in a telephone interview from Istanbul. "It all depends
how the law is applied. Other countries in Europe have similar strange
laws on their statute books, but they are rarely, if ever, applied."

Parliament today removed the reference to "Turkishness" in the
law, instead inserting a clause allowing court prosecutors to try
defendants if they insult the Turkish nation. Prosecutors must seek
approval from the Justice Ministry before starting an initial probe
which might lead to charges.

Trade Embargo

Turkey is inching toward EU membership and has started talks in six
of 35 policy areas and completed one. The EU blocked discussion of
eight of these so-called "chapters" to protest Turkey's trade embargo
against the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, an EU member.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, welcomed the "step
forward" and "looks forward to further moves to change similar
articles in order to ensure that ungrounded prosecutions stop,"
said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.

"Now the Turkish authorities should focus on implementation of the
reform to guarantee full freedom of expression for Turkish citizens,"
Rehn said in an e-mailed statement issued by his office in Brussels.

Turkey is facing opposition to its membership in the EU from
politicians including French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who says the
nation isn't European enough in terms of its geography.

`Half Hearted'

Human rights groups say the changes to 301 don't go far enough and
say the article should be struck from Turkey's law books altogether.

"The government's half-hearted revision is a real disappointment,"
said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at New York-based
Human Rights Watch, in a statement on the group's Web site on April
17. Turkey "has missed an important opportunity to reinvigorate the
reform process and underscore its commitment to free speech."

People convicted of crimes under article 301 will now face a jail
sentence of between six months and two years, down from three years
in the old law. Judges may suspend the sentences.

The article has been used by Turkish prosecutors targeting people who
question Turkey's denial of the so-called genocide of Armenians by
Ottoman Turks during World War I, or who criticize Turkey's treatment
of its ethnic Kurdish minority.

Insulting parliament, the government, judiciary, the military or
the security forces still carries a jail term, according to the
amendment. Mere criticism of those institutions is not a crime,
the law states.

President Abdullah Gul must approve the legal changes before they
can be implemented.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress