In talks with Turkish government officials in Ankara this week, Human Rights Watch called for an intensive effort to complete legal and regulatory reforms necessary for Turkey’s progress toward membership in the European Union.

“If Turkey can make the necessary changes by the end of this year and then show a full year’s track record of respect for human rights, there should be no further obstacles to EU membership negotiations in December 2004,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

The European Union is slated to decide whether to open formal membership negotiations with Turkey at the end of 2004. The European Union has made clear that outstanding concerns in human rights are the main issues that stand in the way.

During his visit to Ankara on October 27 and 28, Roth met with Deputy Prime Minister and Human Rights Minister Abdullah Gül, Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu, and Parliamentary Human Rights Commission President Mehmet Elkatmýþ, as well as government officials and representatives of the parliamentary opposition.

In his meetings, Roth welcomed the increased pace of legislative reform over the past 14 months, including politically sensitive measures such as the abolition of the death penalty, laws permitting broadcasting in minority languages, and provision of safeguards against torture for people detained under the Anti-Terror Law.

Roth also noted the increased acquittal rate in freedom of expression cases, but told ministers that it was frustrating that prosecutors were still bringing charges against people for expressing peaceful opinions. In addition, he expressed concern that four parliamentary deputies were still in prison for legitimate political activity, that broadcasting and teaching in minority languages have not yet begun, and that human rights organizations are still being officially harassed as a consequence of the outdated and restrictive Law on Associations.

Roth welcomed the marked reduction in certain forms of torture, such as electric shocks and hanging by the arms, but expressed concern about the persistence of other forms of torture, including severe beating. Hundreds of people have continued to report ill-treatment because official and independent monitoring of detention facilities are not sufficiently tight. “The best way to end this mistreatment is for the governors and prosecutors regularly to visit all police stations and gendarmeries in their area, and for the Interior Ministry to permit access by independent monitors, including bar associations,” said Roth.

There was a high degree of agreement between Roth and the ministers in their analysis of the outstanding reform steps to be taken, but Roth urged Interior Minister Aksu to adopt a much more liberal approach to peaceful demonstrations. “Too often police intervene to stop peaceful demonstrations, frequently with violence,” he explained. “Obviously police must prevent demonstrators from committing acts of violence, but beyond that the presumption should be that demonstrators can exercise their right to peaceful assembly in areas where their message can be heard, including near government buildings, in public squares, and within commercial areas.” On October 28, at virtually the same time as Human Rights Watch’s meeting with the Interior Minister, police detained students gathering to march from Istanbul to Ankara in protest against education conditions.