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Friday, 5 October, 2001, 00:48 GMT 01:48 UK
Mixed reactions to Turkey's reforms
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit
Ecevit: A great step to improve our democracy
By Nick Thorpe in Istanbul

The Turkish parliament has voted overwhelmingly to overhaul the restrictive 1982 constitution, in a move intended to improve the country's chances of joining the European Union.

Thirty-four amendments were passed - many of them after almost 20 years of protests by human rights groups and foreign observers.

Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan
Despite the reforms, Ocalan can still be executed
The package has been hailed as a success by many, especially considering the unfavourable climate for human rights issues, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the United States.

But critics say that three other amendments, which failed to win the necessary three-fifths majority, as well as remaining problems with the constitution, will still cripple Turkey's bid to join the EU.

Copenhagen criteria

Turkey was recognised as a candidate for membership at the Helsinki summit in 1999, but will only be allowed to begin substantive talks once political and economic conditions - known as the Copenhagen criteria - are met.

"A great step has been taken in order to improve our democracy," Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told parliament after the vote.

The reforms
Death penalty limited
Broadcasts allowed in Kurdish
Restrictions lifted on public rallies
More civilians in National Security Council
Detention period for suspects reduced
Among the most significant changes is the abolition of the death penalty, except for terrorist offences, or in times of war.

No executions have taken place in Turkey since 1984, but the amendment was carefully drafted to leave open the possibility that the Kurdish guerrilla leader, Abdullah Ocalan, can still be executed.

He was sentenced to death in December 1999 for organising a 15-year uprising of Kurds in Turkey.

Kurdish issue

The rights of the estimated 12 million Kurds in Turkey remain extremely restricted, even after the current amendments.

They are still not recognised as a minority, and have no right to education in their own language.

Kurdish woman
Kurds will be able to broadcast in their own language
They will, however, now be allowed, in principle, to broadcast in Kurdish.

Broadcasts can still be banned if they are judged to threaten "national security" and "public safety".

The right to free expression has also been increased.

Under the 1982 constitution, anti-state 'comments' were judged to be a crime - this has led to the trial and imprisonment of dozens of intellectuals and public figures.

Now, only anti-state 'activities' are a criminal offence.

More civilian powers

Other key amendments to the constitution will make it harder to ban political parties, and will increase the number of civilians on the all-powerful national security council, which has until now been dominated by the military.

Some police powers will also be reduced. The period allowed to the police to detain suspects without charge is reduced from 15 to four days.

The holding of public rallies will also become somewhat easier.

Domestic and international reaction to the changes has been mixed.

Western diplomats have cautiously welcomed them, as a milestone on Turkey's path to the EU.

International human rights groups have expressed disappointment.

"The Turkish parliament turned what could have been a defining moment of change into just another lost opportunity," said Elizabeth Andersen, of Human Rights Watch in Washington.

Three amendments failed

Three important amendments failed to win the necessary three-fifths majority.

One will make it harder for two popular Islamists, Necmettin Erbakan and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, currently banned, to return to politics.

Mr Erbakan was briefly prime minister in 1997, before his Welfare Party was banned.

He is now the driving force behind the Felicity Party (SP).

His rival, Mr Erdogan, rose to prominence as mayor of Istanbul, and now heads the White Party (AK).

The party defines itself as "modern, European, and conservative" and was only founded in July. It now leads opinion polls.

Another amendment that failed to be adopted would have made it easier to lift the immunity from prosecution of parliamentary deputies.

Corruption in high places plagues Turkish politics.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Europe
Turkey aims for EU membership
13 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Turkey
30 Apr 01 | Euro-glossary
Nice Treaty
30 Apr 01 | Euro-glossary
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