Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin said Tuesday that the government had almost finished preparatory work on reforming the penal code's notorious Article 301, under which people can be prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness."
"In the coming days we may present the bill connected with 301 to parliament," Sahin told reporters, without going into detail about how the law might be reformed. The measure is likely to pass in parliament, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party has a majority.
Under the law, which has been a stumbling block in Turkey's path to EU membership, those who denigrate Turkey or insult its institutions can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The notorious law has been used in the past to prosecute intellectuals and journalists who have spoken out about the 1915 Armenian massacre, most famously Nobel Prize laureate Orhan Pamuk. The ethnic Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered in January outside his Istanbul office, was also prosecuted under the law. His murder sparked a debate on freedom of expression in Turkey.
The announcement came just hours after the European Union presented its annual report on Turkey's progress towards EU membership, in which it said Turkey must make "significant further efforts" on freedom of expression.
"It is not acceptable that writers, journalists, academics and other intellectuals ... are prosecuted for simply expressing a critical but completely non-violent opinion," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. He made clear that the repeal of what he termed the "infamous Article 301" was a top priority, recommending that the EU should not extend accession negotiations to the key policy area of justice and human rights until the article had been changed.
The Commission report also criticized the pace of reforms in Turkey, which it said had slowed since 2005. Rehn likewise pleaded for a political solution to the ongoing conflict with the Kurdish PKK rebels in northern Iraq.
Turkey began accession talks with the EU in 2005. However the bloc suspended talks on eight of 35 policy areas in December 2006, after Ankara refused to open its ports and airports to traffic from EU member Cyprus.
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