As Turkey prepares for parliamentary elections on July 22, the Turkish military’s interference in the political arena has threatened progress on human rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

At the same time, the government has stalled on implementing human rights reforms. Restrictions on free speech and press freedom, harassment of Kurdish political party officials, and politically motivated court decisions have continued.

“There is a lot riding on Turkey’s parliamentary elections,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Human rights reforms in Turkey will depend on the new government’s commitment to ending abuses and reverse recent backsliding.”

The Turkish military, which for a decade had refrained from direct involvement in politics, has grown vocal in claiming that the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) poses a fundamental threat to the secularist order in Turkey and that it favors Islamist ideology over Turkish nationalism.

The parliamentary elections were moved forward to July after a failed attempt by the AKP to get its candidate for president elected by the parliament. The parliamentary vote was annulled by a controversial Constitutional Court decision only a few days after the Turkish military had intervened in the political debate, raising serious concerns that the military’s intervention may have influenced the court’s decision.

Between April and June, the military made three strong anti-government statements that warned of the threats of religious fundamentalism and terrorism, and made clear that “when necessary” it is ready to intervene, without specifying how, as the “defender of secularism.”

Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned that the military statement on June 8 referred to human rights defenders and other critics of state policies as being synonymous with supporters of terrorist organizations. In recent months, armed clashes between the military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have escalated.

“Given Turkey’s history of military coups, threatening statements by the military are a matter of serious concern to everyone who cares about human rights in the country,” said Cartner. “The military is putting human rights defenders at great risk by equating them with terrorists.”

The briefing paper examines the implications of military interference for human rights, as well as a number of other current human rights concerns, including restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, the harassment and prosecution of Kurdish political parties, ongoing problems of impunity for state officials, and police ill-treatment.

The European Union accession process has provided an important incentive for reform in Turkey, resulting in significant changes in laws. Today, some EU member states have backtracked on the formal commitment made in December 2004 when Turkey was accepted as a candidate for EU membership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has proposed a privileged partnership as an alternative to full membership, while newly elected French President Nicholas Sarkozy claims that there is no place for Turkey in the EU.

Faltering support for Turkey’s accession among some EU states has arguably undermined the reformists in Turkey. This may have strengthened the hand of those opposing reforms.

“Keeping Turkey’s EU candidacy on track is a critical spur for human rights reforms in the country,” said Cartner.