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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 13:35 GMT
Killing sparks 'Turkishness' row
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Murat Belge
Writer Murat Belge is alarmed by the influence of nationalists
Since Hrant Dink was shot, Murat Belge has not left home alone.

There are armed police on 24-hour watch outside his house and a plain-clothes detective by his side at all times.

Like Hrant Dink, Murat Belge was put on trial last year for insulting Turkishness. Now he has been given protection by the state.

"Everyone is in danger. This is getting very savage," the journalist and academic believes. "All around there are similar groups aching to murder someone for their country. It is shocking."

Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink was shot dead on 19 January and a teenage nationalist has been charged with the murder.

Dink had spoken out about the mass killing of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th Century.

New proposal

Demands for the repeal or reform of the law used against Dink - known as Article 301 - have been growing here since tens of thousands flooded the streets for his funeral. Many people carried signs that read "Murderer: 301".

A boy mourns slain journalist Hrant Dink
Hrant Dink's funeral drew a vast crowd of mourners in Istanbul

Now a group representing some of Turkey's most powerful civic groups and trade unions has come up with a proposal on how to change the law.

"In its current form Article 301 is very vague and open to interpretation," explained Davut Okutcu, one author of the proposal presented in Istanbul on Thursday.

"We have formulated this demand because we believe there is a need for change. Now we expect the government to evaluate it."

The proposal specifies a tighter definition of "Turkishness" in the law and replaces the term "insult" with "debase and deride". It also suggests that a judge must prove intent, as well as a "clear and imminent danger," and reduces the maximum sentence from three years in prison to two.

Changes 'not enough'

"How the article should be worded is the job of the government. What we want to stress are the main items that should be incorporated in any change," another of the report's authors, Pekin Baran, told the BBC.

He admitted that the draft proposal was a compromise solution reflecting the divisions in Turkish society.

People see those who want to change the law as supporters of the West
Barbaros Devecioglu
NTV radio producer

"These criteria are the platform on which we could all find common ground," he said.

But two groups walked out of the discussions and they and others have already criticised the suggested changes as too timid.

"The murder of Hrant Dink showed that minimal changes to the wording of the law are not enough," said Gencay Gursoy, head of the Doctors' Union, which refused to endorse the proposal.

"The crowds at Hrant Dink's funeral were an expression of democratic opinion here.

Those people want Article 301 dissolved or changed very radically. It was partly responsible for his murder," he insisted.

Government cautious

The government has said it would consider making changes to Article 301.

Suspect Ogun Samast posing with Turkish flag
A video showed suspect Ogun Samast posing with a Turkish flag
"We are open to suggestions," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated recently.

"We can work on making changes," he said, and stressed that he had requested concrete proposals from civil society groups last November.

But there is no sign the government is ready to abolish the law altogether, especially in an election year when all parties are competing for the nationalist vote.

It seems there is good reason for the politicians to be wary.

When Article 301 was discussed on a phone-in show on NTV radio last week most callers did not want any change to the law at all.

Political upheaval

"This law protects Turkey and Turkishness. Who does it harm? Not me, or other patriots," Recep shouted. "The people who want this law removed have a problem with Turkey."

"Most people in Turkey see any change to Article 301 as an attack, as an act of aggression against the Republic," explained producer Barbaros Devecioglu. He has noticed an increasingly nationalistic tone to calls in recent months.

"People see those who want to change the law as supporters of the West. They are cynical about the demand, and what lies behind it," he said.

The EU has long called for changes in Article 301, arguing that the law places severe restrictions on free speech in Turkey. Some 50 writers have been brought to trial here, including Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, though most cases have eventually been dismissed by the judge.

Since Hrant Dink was killed, the calls for change inside the country have grown louder.

"We should not forget that Turkish society has proved it is capable of substantial reforms in the last five years or so," Pekin Baran argued, though he believes abolishing 301 is unrealistic in the current climate.

"I don't think we are witnessing the end of the reform process. We are going through a very difficult point which is exacerbated by the fact we have two elections this year. But we are a democratic society."

The authors of the new-look 301 will now submit their proposal to the government, as requested.

"They threw the ball to civil society and we have thrown it back. This will put pressure on the government. They will have to work with it," said Davut Okutcu.

"Whether they are strong enough to make a decision in an election year, we'll have to see."

Officer suspended in Dink probe
06 Feb 07 |  Europe
Obituary: Hrant Dink
19 Jan 07 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
18 Jan 07 |  Country profiles

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