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Turkey: Courts Must Safeguard Free Speech

Chomsky Case a Challenge for Istanbul State Security Court

Turkey's courts must protect free expression by throwing out cases charging people with criminal offenses for their expression of non-violent opinions, Human Rights Watch said today.

On February 7, the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed new laws ostensibly easing Turkey's longstanding restrictions on free speech, but Human Rights Watch said the legislation made only minor and insufficient changes.

"Turkey is in the middle of a free speech crisis, and the new laws will not relieve the situation," said Jonathan Sugden, Human Rights Watch's researcher for Turkey.

In the latest of a series of high-profile free expression cases, the American academic Noam Chomsky will appear at Istanbul State Security Court today for the trial of his publisher Fatih Tas, who has been indicted for publishing a translation of Chomsky's work allegedly containing "separatist propaganda" prohibited under Article 8 of Turkey's anti-terror law. Chomsky's writings summarized the history of human rights violations in southeast Turkey.

"By leaving most of these laws on the books, parliament has effectively passed the buck to the courts," said Sugden, who is in Istanbul to observe the Tas case. "If prosecutors continue to insist on using these laws to charge people with crimes for their peaceful expression, it's going to be up to judges to follow their own constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights and toss those actions out." The European Court of Human Rights has repeatedly held that the Turkish government's prosecutions of non-violent speech under its restrictive laws have violated the European Convention, which under Turkey's constitution takes precedence over Turkish domestic law.

The case involving Chomsky's publisher is an embarrassment to Turkey, which is trying to improve its rights record in its bid to join the European Union. The E.U. has said that it expects freedom of expression problems to be cleared up in the "short term" - normally understood in the E.U. accession context to mean one year. The new laws appear to be an effort to meet this deadline as March 2002 marks one year since Turkey adopted its national program for E.U. accession.

In addition to the case involving Chomsky's publisher, 68 students have been arrested in the past three months for writing to the university authorities and asking them to put the Kurdish language on the curriculum. It is expected that the students will be charged under the anti-terror law, because the authorities claim that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which fought the Turkish security forces in the southeast until 1999, is behind the student movement. Human Rights Watch has reports that many of the students have been tortured in custody. On February 5, 2002, thirteen women sat in the dock in an Istanbul criminal court for "insulting the security forces," because they held a meeting to protest sexual assault. Human Rights Watch said that none of these cases is affected by the new laws, except that the possible sentences have been reduced.

"Turkey has been tinkering with its laws restricting the freedom of expression for a decade, without any significant progress to show for it," said Sugden. "Successive governments have contented themselves with insignificant alterations to manifestly rotten laws in order to offset criticism and appear to be doing something."

The most recent amendments to Turkey's speech laws altered Articles 312 and 159 of the Turkish Criminal Code (TCC). Article 312 provides for prison sentences of up to two years for incitement to religious or racial hatred.

The "mini-democracy package" passed on February 7 changed the wording of Article 312 so that such incitement could only be punished if it presented "a possible threat to public order." Whether this amendment brings the law in line with international human rights standards will depend on how courts interpret it. In the past, Turkish courts have deemed calls for "brotherhood" between Turks and Kurds as incitement to racial hatred, and suggestions that earthquakes are divine punishment as incitement to religious hatred. The new law also reduced the prison sentences for Article 159 of the TCC from a maximum of six years to three years, but left the description of the offense unchanged.

Chomsky's writings have been indicted under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law, which last week's reform left untouched, along with the Law to Protect Ataturk, under which the former parliamentary deputy Hasan Mezarci was imprisoned for a year on February 5, 2002.

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