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Turkey Backs Down on Adultery Law

DW staff (ncy)September 14, 2004

Under huge pressure from the European Union, Turkey back-pedaled away from a bill to re-criminalize adultery on Tuesday.

While Erdogan (left) was away, his deputy, Gül, cleared the airImage: AP

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who over the past few days repeatedly spoke out in favor of re-criminalizing adultery, was far away in Tajikistan when his colleagues announced the U-turn. Parliament had already started debating the issue, as Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül pulled aside the opposition leader for a brief exchange.

The upshot was that party consensus was too important to waste on such a trifle.

"Parliament achieved this. I thank the opposition for that and our (Justice and Development) AK-party," Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said after announcing the decision. "This is the image that Turkey has always wished for. This consensus is perhaps even more important than the new penal code itself."

Consensus above all

Formally, parliament concluded that changes to the new penal code would only be made after a consensus had been reached. In effect, it meant that the Islamic-conservative governing party would give up on making adultery a crime, a move that was supposed to appeal to the party's provincial supporters.

On Monday, Tourism Minister Erkan Mumcu was the first cabinet member to distance himself from the law -- probably fearing empty hotel rooms next summer. By Tuesday morning, even "regular" parliamentarians were reluctant to support the plans.

But neither better judgment nor domestic criticism from the press and women's groups tipped the scales. Instead, the decisive factor was most likely the warnings emanating from western Europe. Parliamentarians familiar with EU law have sheepishly said as much.

Die türkische Flagge und EU-Flagge
The Turkish and the European Union flagsImage: AP

"The timing may not have been the best," said Yasar Yakis, who leads the Turkish parliament's EU commission. "That's what many people in Europe told us."

More than timing

The timing wasn't the only problem. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht warned Ankara on Sunday that such a law would be a "serious obstacle" to Turkey's bid to join the European Union. In early October, the European Commission is set to offer its assessment on whether to start accession talks with Turkey, and EU government leaders will decide whether or not to set a date to begin negotiations in December.

Josep Borrell Fontelles
Josep Borrell of SpainImage: AP

Although the European Parliament (EP) does not formally play a roll in the decision, EP President Josep Borrell (photo) announced on Tuesday that the body would compile its own report on whether Turkey should join the bloc. "It would … be a mistake if we didn't speak out on this issue," Borrell said. He stressed that it must be clear to everyone what a "no" to Turkey would mean for EU relations to the Islamic world.

Turkey's new penal code -- without the singular contentious paragraphs on adultery -- is a further step towards the EU. The country's parliament aims to pass the legislation by the weekend. It will increase penalties for torture, punish rape in marriage, limit the practice of testing young women for virginity and increase penalties for builders whose buildings can't withstand earthquakes.