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In 2003, the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party sought to reform some of Turkey's harsher laws, in hopes of eventually being invited to negotiate with the European Union (EU) for membership. These reforms included the easing of laws restricting the use of the Kurdish language, the curbing of the power of the military in political affairs, and an offer of an amnesty to Kurdish militant separatists who were not involved in violence. While the government has made a great deal of progress on the legal aspects of these reforms, actual practices have changed far more slowly.
Turkey emerged as a republic out of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Its founder and the author of its guiding principles was Kemal Mustafa Ataturk ("Father of the Turks"), who declared Muslim Turkey a secular state. Ataturk sought to modernize the country by pursuing Western learning, abolishing the Arabic script in favor of the Roman alphabet for writing Turkish, and abolishing the Muslim caliphate.
Turkey stayed out of most of World War II, but joined the Allies in February 1945. After the war, the republic joined NATO in 1952 to guarantee its protection from the Soviet Union. Modern Turkish political history has been unstable, with the army pushing out civilian governments four times. The army sees itself as a bulwark against both Islamism and Kurdish separatism.
The role of political Islamism has been one of the main defining questions of Turkish politics in the 1990s and in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 1995, an Islamist party, Welfare, won the general election but failed to reach a majority, and none of the other parties would join it in a coalition. Two other parties formed a coalition instead, but a breakup of that coalition in 1997 forced the Democratic Party to form a coalition with Welfare. The army, however, soon forced the Welfare prime minister out of power.
The governments that followed failed to stabilize a shaky economy, and in November 2002, a party with Islamist roots, the AK, won a large majority of seats in the general election. The AK sought to distance itself from political Islamism, but its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, had been banned from politics for reading a poem seeming to incite religious intolerance. Instead of Erdogan, Abdullah Gul was selected prime minister. Gul sought to offer Turkey's support to the United States for the war in Iraq. However, his plan to open a northern front in the war failed in the Turkish parliament, which refused to allow the U.S.-led coalition to use Turkey as a staging point. Turkey watched the conflict in Iraq with some trepidation, worried that the end of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq would mean the creation of a Kurdish state within Iraq that would provide inspiration to Turkey's own restive Kurds.
The military conflict with the separatist guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) remained on a low boil in 2003, as it has since the PKK announced an end to its insurrection in 2000. This followed the capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK's leader, in Africa. He is being held by Turkey, sometimes in solitary confinement, a fact criticized by the human rights group Amnesty International. However, Mr. Ocalan's death sentence was commuted to life in prison in October 2002.
Shortly before the war, the law banning Erdogan was repealed and he entered parliament in a March 2003 byelection, soon formally taking the post of prime minister. Throughout the summer, he used his party's large parliamentary majority to push through several bills that were key to Turkey's application to join the EU. One law rescinds the ban on some broadcasting in Kurdish and allows the teaching of Kurdish in some private schools. Another law curbs the formal power of the military, expressed through its control of the National Security Council, which is reduced to having an advisory role. A third offers amnesty to Kurdish rebels, but only to those who were not involved in violence. Disappointingly few Kurds accepted the offer, however. Yet another law formally bans torture, but again, practices have lagged behind principle.
EU accession has been a major incentive in Turkey's efforts to reform. In 2001, the European Union praised Turkey's progress in that year toward enacting laws that would bring Turkey closer to the European norms it is expected to follow if it is to be admitted to the EU. However, in 2002, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, a former French president who headed the convention writing a constitution for the EU, stated publicly that Turkish membership in the EU would "destroy" the Union. Talk of inserting a nod to Europe's Christian heritage into the preamble of the constitution, which did not take place, was alienating to mostly Muslim Turkey. The EU again lauded Turkey's efforts in a report in November 2003, but noted that on-the-ground implementation of reforms had been "uneven," and Turkey has yet to be given the chance officially to begin negotiations for membership.
In November, terrorists bombed two synagogues, and then a week later, two British targets (a bank and the British consulate). The government identified two men from the Kurdish region as responsible for the synagogue attacks. Two separate militant Islamist groups claimed responsibility for the anti-British attacks, citing Turkey's membership in the "crusader" NATO alliance and its friendly relations with Israel as its cause. Turkey had not previously been a major target of Islamist terrorism.
Turkish citizens can change their government democratically, although democratic choice has been undercut by the army in the past. The military retains considerable influence over the government, particularly in security and in some aspects of diplomatic affairs, notably over Cyprus. The 1982 constitution provides for a parliament, the Grand National Assembly, which is elected to five-year terms. The prime minister is the head of government, but the assembly chooses a mostly symbolic president as head of state currently Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a former constitutional court judge. The National Security Council, dominated by the military, had its policy-setting role downgraded to a purely advisory one by a law passed in 2003. A constitutional amendment in 2001 increased the number of civilians on the council.
There are numerous restraints on freedom of expression, although some legal restrictions were relaxed by the AK government in 2003. For example, advocating school instruction in Kurdish no longer necessarily invites a conviction for conspiring to break up the Turkish state. However, laws against "insulting" the state remain on the books, and it is still illegal to defame Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. Journalists are frequent targets of prosecution; criticizing the military or Kurdish policy is particularly dangerous. One journalist, Hasan Ozgun, who served in prison from 1996 to 2003 for belonging to the PKK, was threatened with reimprisonment later that year for writing that the military committed abuses, including murder, in southeastern Turkey. Prosecutors asked for a 12-year sentence. Reporters Sans Frontieres ranked Turkey one-hundred-and-fifteenth in the world in its 2003 ranking of press freedom. The government does not restrict access to the Internet, but it does reserve the right to require Internet service providers to provide advance copies of content to be posted.
The overwhelming majority of Turks--around 99 percent--are Sunni Muslims. Secularism remains the state's official creed, and despite the presence of the AK party in government, pressure against Islamists and openly pious Muslims remains strong. It is illegal for women to wear the hijab (headscarf) in government or at universities. Though the government is sympathetic to lightening restrictions on the headscarf, it is not willing to offend the military or secular conservatives by pushing this as an issue. A 1998 law placed all mosques under government administration. Three non-Muslim groups--Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians and Jews--are officially recognized, while other groups lack legal status and their activities are subject to legal challenges. The government does not restrict academic freedom, although self-censorship on sensitive topics like the role of Islam and the Kurdish problem are common.
Authorities may restrict freedom of association on the grounds of public order. Pro-Kurdish political parties and nongovernmental organizations face harassment. The high vote threshold of 10 percent required for a political party to enter parliament shuts out many parties with a reasonable support base, including the Democratic People's Party, DEHAP (formerly HADEP), the main Kurdish party.
With the exception of public servants and workers engaged in the protection of life or property--including those in the mining and petroleum industries, sanitation, defense, law enforcement, and education--workers may form unions, bargain collectively, and strike.
The government influences judges by its control of appointments and promotions. The head of the High Council of Judges and Prosecutors is appointed by the president, and its decisions are not subject to review. Those held for state security offenses can be detained for days without access to a lawyer or families, and conditions are worse in the Kurdish areas of the southeast. The death penalty is now legally only applied to those who commit terrorism or during times of war. While many remain under death sentences, an unofficial moratorium on carrying out these sentences has been in effect since 1984. Ending the death penalty is crucial to Turkey's EU application.
The prison system remains brutal. Despite an official ban, torture--including blindfolding, beating, death threats, deprivation of food and sleep, and in some cases, electric shocks--remains commonplace. Women are frequently sexually assaulted in custody. Although the problem is widely known and even acknowledged by some high officials, few perpetrators are ever convicted, and much remains to be done to bring prison conditions in line with the new laws and with European norms.
Turkey claims that all Turkish citizens are treated equally, but its unwillingness to recognize Kurdish differences results in de facto unequal treatment under the law. Broadcasting in Kurdish was made legal, but the government still officially denies the existence of a Kurdish language and forbids teaching in Kurdish in public schools.
Although women have the same legal status as men, much of Turkey is socially conservative, and women have far lower status in practice. Probably scores of women are killed each year in "honor killings," often by stoning, for transgressions such as having a lover before marriage or for going to the cinema with a man before marriage. An article in the penal code gives judges discretion in murder cases for "extenuating circumstances," and socially conservative judges often use this to hand down only light punishment to perpetrators of honor killings.