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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Analysis: Turkey, adultery, and the EU
By Jonny Dymond
BBC correspondent in Istanbul, Turkey

For weeks Turkey has been talking frenziedly about adultery. It's nothing to do with the country's sexual habits. There's been nothing to indicate an upsurge in infidelity.

Women in Ankara protest against the proposed legislation
Women's groups said the proposed law was a step backwards
Instead, the newspapers and talk shows, government and opposition, pressure groups and activists have all been homing in on a change that was proposed to Turkey's penal code, which would have criminalised adultery, making it punishable with either a fine or imprisonment.

The issue hit so many buttons.

To some it was a question about the role of the state on private life.

To others there was a whiff of Islamism about the whole thing - no small accusation in a country where the military protects the secular nature of the Republic and the government of the day has to watch its steps lest it be accused of Islamist intentions.

Then there was Turkey's EU future, or at least its hopes.

European politicians and officials were making less and less subtle references to their deep dislike of the proposed law.

And running through the whole saga was of course, sex, a delight to journalists and bar bores whatever the country.


By lunchtime on Tuesday, Turkey's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who, along with the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, appears to have brought Turkey to within inches of EU membership negotiations, had clearly had enough.

The changes to the penal code, he told parliamentary colleagues, were being overshadowed by the row over adultery.

By late afternoon on Tuesday the adultery proposal was dead and gone, washed away by a fudgy parliamentary compromise that just about allowed the government to save face.

Photographers shoot the extraordinary session at the Turkish parliament
A vote on the package of measures to reform the 78-year old penal code is expected in days
If you want to know why, look at Abdullah Gul's comments. Not only was the adultery proposal being met with a tidal wave of abuse across much of Europe. But that wave was threatening to swamp the reform of the country's Penal Code, a reform it was undertaking in order to bring itself into line with European standards.

By bringing in the adultery proposal, the government was not so much shooting itself in the foot as amputating limbs without anaesthetic. Because reform of the penal code is actually something to boast about.

EU officials acknowledge that there are some things they would have liked to have seen in the reforms that have not made it. But in general they are enthusiastic; "modern" and "progressive" was how one official spoke of the proposed reforms.

As has been the pattern of the last few years, this is a sweeping overhaul of Turkey's legislation, especially as it relates to violence against women.

Proposed changes

Rape within marriage is to be made a crime. Leniency for rapists who marry their victims will be abolished. Leniency for mothers who kill their children will also disappear. The difference between women and girls in sexual assault cases is disappearing.

Provocation will no longer be a defence in "honour killings" - murders of women accused of illicit affairs by their relatives. The idea of "honour", a societal code once enshrined in the legal code, is to go. Attacks on women that were once handled as attacks on the family or as creating disorder in society, will now be treated as attacks on individuals.

The statute of limitations for major corruption cases, especially involving government and business, is to be abolished. All laws will have to be in accordance with the international agreements that Turkey is party to. Discrimination on religious, ethnic and sexual grounds is made a crime.

Guenter Verheugen (right) on his visit to Turkey
EU commissioner for enlargement Guenter Verheugen stressed the need for reforms in a visit last week
Privacy is also to be protected - the police will be punished for entering homes without good reason, the interception of telephone calls and the gathering of personal information restricted. And heavy penalties are to be introduced for environmental destruction.

Public endorsement

As with so many of the reforms of the past three years, this has been a top-down business. There has been greater involvement by NGOs and pressure groups than before. But the vast majority of Turkish citizens are unlikely to know anything of the changes being made to their legal system.

Except, perhaps, for the adultery proposal. And there is the irony. Because despite the high-octane abuse levelled at the government, both inside and outside Turkey, there was significant public support for the proposed law.

And now, without any debate in parliament, it is gone, swept away as part of the government's single-minded pursuit of EU membership.

The adultery law was without doubt overshadowing all the good work of the penal code. But, for some, its sudden disappearance may be a rather rude awakening to the demands of the EU membership process.

EU sees Turkish reform progress
06 Sep 04 |  Europe
Turkey 'fails to protect women'
02 Jun 04 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
14 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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