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Turkey Changes Laws to Meet EU Standards

Jörg Pfuhl (sms)
September 1, 2004

The Turkish government agreed on 348 new paragraphs to brings it 80-year-old penal code, which punished sheep theft harder than assault, up to European standard. Extending women's rights was especially controversial.

Reforms are meant to bring Turkey on track for EU membership talksImage: AP

The Turkish government wants to implement the changes, which the opposition party said it will not challenge, quickly -- ideally before an October decision by the European Commission on whether the EU should begin accession talks with Ankara.

The reforms are Turkey's latest batch of legal adjustments, made to boost the country's chances for EU membership. In the past two years, Turkey passed laws that increased freedom of speech and reduced the role of the military.

"The old laws were focused on the state. They limited citizens' freedom to protect the state," Hakki Köyklü of the ruling Justice and Development Party said. "Now we're putting the people in the center."

Bombenanschlag in Istanbul
Politicians want to put a stop to torture in police stationsImage: AP

That means torture in police stations and prisons will be punished with 12 years in jail. Sending children to beg in the streets will also receive harsher punishment, as will child abuse. Genocide, crimes against humanity and people trafficking will also make their first appearances in the Turkish penal code.

Women's rights improved

But it was sexual crimes that politicians devoted most of their attention to -- both in Ankara and in Brussels.

With pressure from the EU, women's rights groups were able to outlaw rape in marriages and get old-fashioned terms like "chastity," "honor" and "moral" out of criminal law books. Forced virginity tests were struck from the books as have the sentence reductions for rapists who marry their victims and fathers who murder their "impure" daughters in so-called honor killings.

But one old moral custom managed to push its way back in to law. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said there were "social reasons" for making adultery illegal again, after it was struck from the statute book eight years ago.

"This is really not progressive," said Sükrem Eroglu, member of Istanbul's bar association. "It's a fully behind-the-times mentality."

Though joined by a few women's groups, Eroglu didn't have much company in his criticism -- the public, for the most part, remained silent on the issue.

Türken in Deutschland Frauen mit Kopftuch auf dem Markt
Though allowed in public, headscarves in schools are still illegalImage: AP

The adultery ban is one of the few points the conservative parties can give to their voters. They lost in their fight to lift the taboo on headscarves in Turkish schools and universities.

No promises from EU

While commending the progress Ankara has made in the last two years, EU officials still aren't making any promises.

An August report by Dutch Advisory Council on International Affairs recommended beginning accession talks with Turkey within the next two years, but warned the EU about setting a specific accession date, until the actual effects of the reforms can be seen.

"Now we're going to work together to get all of this finished before October," Justice Minister Cicek said. "The rest is just details and tabloid news."

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