AFP / REUTERS – April 12, 2013 – ANKARA:   Turkey’s parliament on Thursday passed long-awaited legislation to bring its widely criticised anti-terror laws level with European standards, and which could see the release of thousands of prisoners suspected of having ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The new package of laws passed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is aimed at stopping freedom violation cases from piling up before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). Crucially, the reform makes a clear distinction between membership of an illegal organisation and producing propaganda for it, which is accepted as long as it does not “legitimise, praise (or) encourage” violence.

The change is expected to prompt the release of a few thousand pro-Kurdish prisoners jailed on suspicion of ties to the PKK, labelled a terrorist organisation by Turkey and much of the Western world. Turkey has used the legislation widely to prosecute thousands of politicians, activists and journalists, frequently for things they have said or written. The country regularly tops the list of countries violating the European Convention of Human Rights and the European Commission had called on Ankara to amend its laws to distinguish between incitement to violence and expression of non-violent ideas. According to the new law only direct incitement to violence will constitute a crime, and justice ministry officials said it was in line with European Court of Human Rights criteria.

Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said those defendants were being tried with membership of a terrorist organisation, rather than spreading propaganda. The reform also abolishes the 20-year statute of limitations for people involved in carrying out torture.

Supporters describe the reform as a “good but insufficient move” to radically improve Turkey’s anti-terrorism laws, whose broad wording has led to the jailing of hundreds, including army chiefs, journalists, politicians and academicians. As of January 31, the ECtHR had received a giant pile of 16,700 applications for cases of rights violations in Turkey to be heard, according to justice ministry figures. The court has found Turkey guilty of rights violations in 2,521 cases since 1959, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin told Anatolia news agency on Wednesday. “The plan includes important revisions that will improve Turkey’s record in human rights and freedom of expression,” Ergin added.