Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of Akin Birdal, the former president of the Turkish Human Rights Association, who is once again behind bars.

Birdal's release from prison on health grounds in September 1999 was widely viewed as an attempt to avoid official embarrassment during the Istanbul OSCE Conference in November, and the European Union Helsinki Summit in December 1999.

"We are not only distressed that the Turkish government made this insincere gesture to international opinion, but that it is now compounding the farce but putting Birdal back in prison," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division.

Birdal was imprisoned on June 3, 1999, for a speech he made three years earlier calling for "peace and understanding." On March 28, 2000, he was deemed to be in sufficiently good health to resume prison life and was returned to Ankara Central Closed Prison to serve the remainder of his twelve-month sentence. He was convicted for "inciting racial hatred" under article 312 of the Turkish Penal Code, which provides for sentences of up to three years for incitement to hatred on grounds of race or religion.

In advance of the Helsinki Summit, the Turkish government repeatedly gave assurances that it was firmly established on the road to reform. In January, after Turkey's E.U. candidacy was approved, the State Minister Responsible for Human Rights Mehmet Ali Irtemcelik announced a list of "short term aims" which included easing restrictions on free expression. Nothing, however, has been done. Akin Birdal, in undeniably fragile health after a near fatal shooting attack in 1998, is paying the price for the government's failure to keep its promises.

Of the various articles of the Turkish Penal Code used to inhibit debate in Turkey, the most commonly used is article 312. Convictions under article 312 lead to bans on participation in politics or civil society. Because of the conviction under article 312, Akin Birdal, under article 4 of the Law on Associations, was forced to resign not only his leadership of the Turkish Human Rights Association but also his membership. Under article 81 of the Law on Political Parties he may not stand for any political office nor join any political party during his lifetime.

.For politicians, a conviction under article 312 effectively means the end of public life and is therefore a powerful curb on ideas that are unwelcome to the state, such as the role in politics of ethnicity, religion or the military. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was stripped of his status as mayor of Istanbul for reading an inoffensive poem. Former education minister and leader of the Rebirth Party Hasan Celal Guzel, who was imprisoned under article 312 just five days after the E.U. summit, was also deprived of political rights for life and is being held at Ayas Closed Prison in Ankara. The former prime minister and leader of the Refah (Welfare) Party, Necmettin Erbakan, will be similarly excluded from politics if a sentence under article 312 is confirmed at appeal. He is already subject to a separate ban from politics as leader of a party closed down by the Constitutional Court.

Meanwhile, although a number of convictions under article 312 have already been found to contravene Article 10 of the European Convention in judgments against Turkey (including Ozturk v. Turkey 22479/93, 28/9/99; Ceylan v. Turkey 00023556/94, 8/07/1999; Incal v. Turkey 00022678/93, 9/6/98;), members of the Turkish judiciary and politicians still publicly voice their opposition to reform of the penal code. Yesterday, the chief prosecutor was reported as stating that article 312 should be retained unchanged as a bulwark against "separatism and religious reactionism" (Radikal, March 28, 2000). It seems likely that the most immovable obstacle in the way of reforming article 312 is the army, the eminence gris of Turkish politics. In 1999 the chief of general staff warned that article 312 should not be amended.