Turkish Government At Odds Over EU Rights

ANKARA (Reuters)–Two different wings of Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s government were at odds on Tuesday over human rights reforms needed to join the European Union.

Ecevit–addressing parliament for the first time since Friday’s offer of EU candidacy–said the reforms were not dictated by the EU’s Copenhagen accession criteria–but were something Turkey aspired to of its own accord.

He saw no real opposition to the changes demanded.

"The government worked in harmony–very effectively. This is a success of the government–the opposition and the whole nation," Ecevit said.

But there were early signs of discontent among his Nationalist Action Party (MHP) coalition partners to commen’s by Ecevit and Foreign Minister Ismail Cem on issues linked to the Kurdish separatist conflict in the southeast.

Ecevit repeated remarks made at an EU summit in Helsinki at the weekend that he wanted to see the death penalty abolished as quickly as possible in Turkey–a key EU demand. Such a move would spare Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan the rope.

Cem–touching on another sensitive issue–said Kurdish-language broadcasting could be allowed in a bid to meet EU rights criteria. Turkish leaders have in the past always rejected the idea–suggesting either that there were too many dialects or declaring outright that they believed it would undermine national unity.

"Everyone in Turkey should have the right to broadcast in their own mother tongue," Hurriyet daily quoted Cem as saying.

"Our government will of course assess this issue. But to start (membership) negotiations Turkey in principle should remove obstacles to democracy and human rights. This is one of them," said Cem. Other newspapers carried similar stories.

Cem is a leading light in Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party.

The country’s poor human rights performance was high among European concerns that had hindered Ankara’s candidacy.

Cem’s suggestion attracted quick opposition from the MHP.

"A nation must have only one official language. Unitary states all have one official language," said MHP Minister Enis Oksuz.

MHP leader and deputy Premier Devlet Bahceli criticized the EU for insisting Turkey abolish the death penalty.

"We do understand the EU for valuing human life–but we do not understand it for granting value and importance to the head of the terrorists," Bahceli told his members of parliament in parliament.

The issue could divide the government if Ocalan’s execution comes to a final vote in parliament. This in turn would put vital economic reforms started by the government at risk.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) suffered a body blow earlier this year when their leader Ocalan was captured by Turkish forces in Kenya and then sentenced to death for treason.

The European Court of Human Rights has asked Turkey not to carry out any execution until it has ruled on Ocalan’s appeal against his sentence.

Ocalan–in a message from his death row cell–welcomed Turkey’s EU candidacy on Tuesday.

"The republic should acknowledge the historic–cultural and social identity of Kurds–who are among its founders," he said in a written statement issued through his lawyers.

He said his rebels had never aimed to found a separate state but fought for Kurdish cultural rights.

"We have never been after separatism. We wanted our name–our language and our culture," he said.

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