ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The Turkish parliament on Thursday approved changes to anti-terrorism laws in a bid to reduce the number of prosecutions for the non-violent expression of opinions, but critics say the revisions don't go far enough.
Turkey has prosecuted hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists under its broadly worded anti-terrorism laws, some for simply expressing opinions or taking part in protests. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has described the country as the "world's biggest prison for journalists." Long pre-trial detention periods and the often slow pace of the proceedings have increased concerns about human rights in the country.
In a show of hands, legislators approved a series of government-proposed amendments which narrows the definition of what constitutes terrorist propaganda, seeking "a clear and an imminent danger to public order" and limiting prosecution to people who openly promote violence.
However, the amendments leaves other legal restrictions on freedom of expression unchanged and critics say the revised wording of the laws still allow prosecutors and judges to invoke a clause on the threat to "public order" to move against activists.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has a majority in parliament and the changes were approved with ease. Human rights advocates and opposition parties have called the effort a missed opportunity for reform in Turkey, a democracy with a mostly Muslim population that seeks membership in the European Union.
"This package does nothing to solve any of our problems," opposition legislator Bulent Tezcan said. "We are faced with a government that treats anyone who wants to express an opinion as terrorists."
Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey at St. Lawrence University in the United States said: "They are plastering over the cracks of a fundamentally broken system. Under these reforms, statutes that limit basic freedom of expression still stand."
"The Turkish government could have moved forward with substantial and far-reaching judicial reform that would have truly protected freedom of expression in Turkey. It chose not to," he told The Associated Press in an emailed statement.
The government, however, says the changes will reduce the number of cases filed against Turkey at the Strasbourg, France-based European Court of Human Rights, for human rights violations.
"We are one step closer toward reaching universal legal norms," ruling-party legislator Bulent Turan said after the vote.
The amendments also lift the 20-year statute of limitations on probes into torture cases, allowing for the prosecution of state officials engaged in abuse in the 1990s. The statute of limitations however, remains unchanged for cases of extrajudicial killings by state security officials.
Dozens of journalists have been jailed in Turkey — most of them reporters employed by pro-Kurdish media and being prosecuted on charges of membership in a terror organization for alleged links to Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey. Others are on trial accused of taking part in an alleged pro-secular conspiracy to bring down Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government.