By Daren Butler, Reuters
Turkey on Thursday faced growing demands to ease restrictions on freedom of speech after a court confirmed a six-month suspended jail sentence for an ethnic Armenian editor convicted of "insulting Turkishness".
The European Union, which Turkey hopes to join, said after the ruling this week that Ankara should rewrite its penal code. Human rights groups and Turkish commentators urged the government to abolish the code's controversial Article 301, which carries a jail sentence of up to three years.
The High Court of Appeals ruling in the case of Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of the Turkish and Armenian weekly Agos, would send a chill through the domestic media, said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "It calls into question the country's commitment to press freedom and legal reforms which are a pre condition for its goal of joining the European Union," Simon said.
Turkey started EU entry talks last October but negotiations are expected to last more than a decade. In recent months it has faced growing criticism from Brussels over the pace of reform. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on Wednesday the latest ruling showed the reformed penal code still restricted freedom of expression and would set a binding precedent for other pending human rights cases. He said the Commission would review the situation in the light of the EU's political criteria in its upcoming progress report on Turkey in late October or early November.
Sensitive to those concerns, the government has said it may call parliament back from its summer recess two weeks early in mid-September to push through the latest package of reforms. Rights groups and Turkish commentators said it should use this opportunity to abolish Article 301. "A revision of Article 301 must urgently be incorporated into this package," said Radikal newspaper editor Ismet Berkan. The government has not yet commented on the court's ruling and officials were not immediately available.
Jonathan Sugden from New York-based Human Rights Watch told Reuters it was difficult for the government to abolish such laws given its uneasy relationship with the state bureaucracy. The onus was thus on judges who could acquit in such cases on the grounds that a conviction would contravene Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been incorporated in Turkish law. "It is staggering that seven years into a reform program and several programs dedicated to training judges in applying the convention, a substantial section of the judiciary ... still hasn't grasped the fundamentals," he said.
Internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk is among a host of other writers who have been prosecuted under the same laws, although his case was dropped. Dink was sentenced for Armenian-related comments.
Armenians say 1.5 million Armenians were killed in a genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, but Turkey rejects this and says both Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks suffered mass killings in partisan conflict.
London-based Amnesty International called for an immediate repeal of the law, which it says muzzles peaceful dissenting opinion, and said it could be part of the next reform package.