EU gearing up for one of the toughest reports on Turkey in recent years

21 September 2012 / SELÇUK GÜLTAŞLI, BRUSSELS – Zaman – The European Commission is about to publish one of its most critical progress reports on Turkey in recent years, Today’s Zaman has learned.

The draft report harshly criticizes Turkey’s shortcomings, despite its efforts to reform, citing as basic reasons the almost virtual halt of the reform process and deficiencies with fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of expression and of the press. The draft report will welcome the “democratic and the participative work” taking place on a new constitution, the adoption of the law on the ombudsman institution and the improvements in the Turkish criminal justice system introduced through the third judicial reform package, despite shortcomings. It will also praise Turkey’s role and open door policy regarding the Syrian crisis and stress Ankara’s constructive role in North Africa. However, while welcoming positive developments in civilian-military relations, the draft has adopted a more critical approach vis-à-vis coup investigations.

The report’s focus this year will be on fundamental freedoms, in light of which it asks Ankara to present the fourth judicial package to Parliament before the end of September and to work for its rapid endorsement. A meeting document viewed by Today’s Zaman reads, “A presentation by the government, before the end of September, of the fourth judicial reform package, which we know is in preparation at working level and aims to tackle the issues mentioned, would make a real difference and tone down the criticism in the report.”

The draft will highlight the shortcomings in the judicial system by noting the executive’s presumed influence on judicial bodies. Criticizing the legal framework on terrorism and organized crime, the draft says the laws are interpreted so widely that they lead to “recurring infringements of the right to liberty and security, of the right to a fair trial and of freedom of expression, assembly and association.”

Removal of the prosecutors in the German-based Turkish charity Deniz Feneri case is referred to as a source of “concern” regarding the influence of the executive on the judiciary, while the judiciary is criticized in general for not working according to international standards.

The meeting document also warns Turkey of the exceptionally critical tone of the draft, stating, “In the light of developments, in particular in the area of freedom of expression and other fundamental rights, we will express concern and this will influence the overall tone of the progress report compared to earlier years.” While it acknowledges that domestic debate on sensitive issues has continued, restrictions on freedom of the media and new court cases against writers and journalists are described as issues of “serious” concern. Brussels argues that self-censorship is now widespread among journalists in the country.

The draft welcomes work on the new constitution and emphasizes that it could be an opportunity to address the Kurdish problem, although it notes that secret talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have been abandoned and that no major progress has been made recently. Referring to the meeting between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to exchange views on how to tackle the Kurdish issue, the draft notes that there was no follow-up to the meeting, which took place in June.The draft is also critical of the lack of discussion around political responsibility for the Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish smugglers were killed by Turkish jets after being mistaken for terrorists, and of legal cases against the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), as it argues that local government in the Southeast has suffered and been affected adversely by such actions.

The draft will also highlight that the democratic opening, which started in 2009, has now come to a virtual halt. As in previous years, the draft is expected to condemn PKK terror by recognizing that it is on the EU list of terror organizations, and also to underline increased tensions in the wake of the PKK’s escalation of terror attacks. The start of Kurdish language elective courses at secondary schools is also expected to be canvassed.

The European Commission is adopting a more critical approach vis-à-vis coup investigations this year, focusing on the shortcomings in the cases. Addressing the rights of defendants, lengthy pre-trial detention and long indictments, the draft refers to former Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ without naming him. “During the Internet Memorandum investigation, the former chief of staff of the armed forces was arrested in January 2012 on charges of attempting to overthrow the government and of membership of a terrorist organization. This led to significantly enhanced public scrutiny of the legitimacy of these cases,” says the draft. Prime Minister Erdoğan has on several occasions called on the judiciary to release the retired four-star general. On Cyprus, the draft will repeat the commission’s conventional position, reiterating that Ankara has not fully implemented the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement and has not removed all obstacles to the free movement of goods, including restrictions on direct transport links with Cyprus.

However, this year the draft also refers to Turkey’s decision to freeze relations with the EU during the presidency of Greek Cyprus, and to boycott meetings chaired by the Greek Cypriot presidency. Nicosia’s presidency will end on Dec. 31, 2012.