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Europe

Turkey Pushes Forward on EU Reform Course

In a move designed to harmonize its human rights standards with those of Europe, Turkey has approved an amnesty for Kurdish rebels. It’s the latest in a slew of reforms aimed to qualify the country for EU membership.

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The demands for change are growing, especially among Turkey's Kurdish minority.

Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer on Tuesday approved an amnesty law for Kurdish rebels once engaged in a vicious war in the south-east of the country.

The law, adopted by parliament last week, offers a pardon for Kurdish rebels who lay down their arms and surrender and who have not committed any violent crimes. It also envisages reducing the jail sentences of those already imprisoned for violent acts, if they provide the authorities with information about their underground activities.

The amnesty, mainly aimed at rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) -- now renamed KADEK -- will be valid for six months. The Kurdish rebels have fought a bloody separatist war in the country’s mainly Kurdish south-east since 1984, claiming the lives of more than 36,000 people.

Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Ocalan.

Though KADEK announced a cease-fire in 1999 following the capture of leader Abdullah Ocalan (photo), some 5,000 rebels are believed to be still holed up in mountainous bases in northern Iraq. Ankara believes that around 2,000 rebels can qualify for the amnesty. However, senior leaders and commanders of KADEK have been excluded from it.

The amnesty is seen by some observers as an attempt by Turkey to improve on its woeful record of human-rights record. Of particular concern for the EU has been the rampant use of torture in prisons and police stations.

Weakening the grip of the mighty military

The amnesty law comes close on the heels of another landmark package of reforms passed by the Turkish parliament last week. The new laws drastically curtail the power of the country’s powerful army generals, the self-proclaimed guardians of Turkey’s secular constitution and long considered a potent force in Turkish politics.

The measures aim to curb the political influence of the military, strips the military-dominated National Security Council (MGK) of its executive powers and turns it into a advisory body. It also abolishes some anti-terror laws thought to crush freedom of thought and expression.

"This law is a step for democracy and freedom. Our aim is to reach the standards of countries already enjoying first class rights and freedoms," Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek told parliament after the vote.

On Monday, Turkey's military proved they would allow the reforms when they appointed an army general as secretary-general of the MGK, a move observors say will sharply reduce the power of the general as compared to his predecessors.

"The fact that a four-star general will be heading the secretariat doesn't really mean that the military will be as instrumental as they were in the past. The functions are no longer there," Sedat Ergin, Ankara bureau chief for Turkey's daily Hurriyet told Reuters.

All for the sake of EU membership

The latest measures are all part of Turkey’s attempt to convince Brussels of its commitment to a reformist agenda and fall into the seventh of a series of so-called "harmonization packages" that would bring Turkey into line with its would-be EU partners and eventually qualify it for membership of the European Union.

Brussels says it will not hold accession talks with Turkey -- the only EU candidate country with a predominantly Muslim population -- unless it first implements a wide-ranging series of measures that would meet EU criteria setting standards for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which every EU candidate must fulfill.

For Ankara, this means nothing short of revamping its much of system of governance, which is considered riddled by corruption, poor on human rights and largely controlled by the fiercely secular army generals who are wary of both Muslim fundamentalism and Kurdish separatism.

Road to EU club remains rocky

Wahlsieger Recep Tayyip Erdogan in der Türkei

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Though previous governments began tackling the formidable task by pushing through past EU harmonization bills, the present ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Tayyip Erdogan (photo) has stepped up the pace of reforms by bolstering rights and freedoms for the country’s estimated 12 million-strong Kurdish minority.

However major challenges remain in the form of an uneasy relationship between the powerful military and the AKP. The secular-minded army generals -- who forced an Islamist government out of office in 1997 -- remain suspicious of the AKP’s Islamist roots, though its leaders have disavowed them and have promised to support democratic reform and keep religion out of politics.

The generals are also jittery that the emergence of a Kurdish quasi-state next door in Iraq might stir aspirations among Turkey’s Kurdish minority population of greater freedom and might be reinforced by the EU’s insistence on minority rights.

Turkey’s goal of EU membership remains further complicated, this time by a debate outside its borders, with some EU officials saying Turkey with its predominantly Muslim population should not become a member because its cultural identity and history are not European enough.

For now however the EU has welcomed Turkey’s latest measures to help smooth its path into the club. Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, told Reuters, "Our reaction is very positive. Of course we all want to look at the small print and the implementation, but this goes exactly in the direction of fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria."

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