Turkey grants Kurds rights,abolishes death penalty in EU bid

ANKARA, Turkey, AP

After heavy pressure from overseas, Turkey’s parliament abolished the death penalty and granted greater rights to the country’s minority Kurds on Saturday — moves aimed at earning membership in the European Union.

In a rowdy, all night debate, pro-EU legislators pushed through the legislation despite fierce opposition by nationalists, a group that is suspicious of the EU and fears that the reforms could divide the country along ethnic lines. The nationalists charge that the reforms reward Kurdish rebels who waged a 15-year battle for autonomy in southeastern Turkey.

The EU made abolishing the death penalty a condition for Turkey to join the Union after making it a candidate for membership in 1999, while international activist groups have long lobbied for an end to restrictions on Kurdish education and language use.

But debate over the reforms was far from over.

The changes were likely to be a major issue in November elections, and the nationalists also said they may try to overturn the new laws in the Turkey’s highest court.

The legislation was to take effect after approval by the president — who approves of the changes — and publication in the official gazette. But Turkey has a bad record of failing to implement legislation, and it was not clear if Kurds, for example, could immediately open up Kurdish-language schools.

“It’s important that we have approved the legislation but what’s even more important is Please see EU on page

implementation of reforms,” said pro-Islamic legislator Abdullah Gul. “We have ratified reforms in the past but have made little headway in implementing them.”

In Brussels, the EU welcomed the moves as “significant steps toward better protection of human rights and the rights of minorities in Turkey,” but said it would carefully monitor their implementation.

Earlier this year, Turkey approved measures for wider freedoms, but some writers and human rights advocates continued to be charged for public expressions deemed illegal by the courts.

Saturday’s measures will replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Capital punishment remains on the books, however, during times of war. The reforms also legalize long-banned TV and radio broadcasts in the Kurdish language and allow Kurdish and other regional dialects to be taught in special courses.

The United States strongly supports this predominantly Muslim but secular nation’s EU membership. Washington has touted NATO-member Turkey as a possible model for other Muslim states.

European nations have been pressing Turkey to improve its much-criticized human rights record. The country has been dogged by accusations of rampant torture in police stations and prisons. Turkey does not recognize Kurds as a minority, and the country’s 12 million Kurds have long been denied cultural rights.

“Turkey has taken a giant step on the road to the EU,” said Deputy Premier Mesut Yilmaz, whose party drafted the reform package.

An EU summit in December was to decide on expanding the 15-nation bloc and could set a date for Turkey’s entry talks.

“I expect the EU to now set a date for membership negotiations,” said Tuncay Ozilhan, the head of the pro-EU influential business and industrialists group, TUSIAD.

A nationwide poll conducted in May by a private think tank showed a majority of Turks favor EU membership. But the nationalist party, the largest in parliament, has resisted the reform, saying it would fuel the 15-year war by Kurdish rebels seeking autonomy.