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Turkey’s Erdogan vows to enhance free speech in bid to join EU

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unveiled a package of judicial reforms on Thursday and promised to enhance freedom of expression in the country as part of the country’s bid to join the European Union.

Erdogan said the reform package demonstrates Turkey’s commitment to full EU membership despite “promises that haven’t been kept.”

The judicial reform package of Turkey, which ranked 109th out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project’s 2019 Rule of Law Index, aimed to “strengthen our nation’s sense of justice,” Erdogan said.

The announcement of judicial reforms came after years of a government-led crackdown on dissidents in Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted coup in July 2016.

The reform package which is composed mainly of nine aims divided into 63 more specific objectives and 256 actions designed to put them into practice, was announced by Erdogan at a meeting at his presidential palace in capital Ankara.

The two main aims of the judicial reform package are to strengthen democracy, rights, freedoms and the improvement of the functioning of the judicial system, Erdogan explained.

The judicial reform package followed the 2019 Enlargement Package published by EU on Wednesday, which states that Turkey is moving further away from EU human rights standards.

It was underlined in the EU package that there is a serious backsliding in the areas of the rule of law, fundamental rights, freedoms, the new presidential system, separation of powers and growing political polarization in Turkey.

“Freedom of expression, which is an indispensable part of human rights, is the most important condition and element in democracy. In the last 16 years, important steps have been taken towards promoting freedom of expression and media in Turkey,” Erdogan’s package stated.

Erdogan stated that the document introduces approaches to strengthen freedom of expression and new policies to actualize that will.

“We will ensure that the verdicts that are given in cases related to freedom [of] expression can also be examined by the Supreme Court of Appeals,” he said.

The president pointed out that the package will also allow them to ban access to a particular news article on a website if it is found “problematic” by the Turkish authorities and not the entire website as it has been done in the past.

Since 2017, online encyclopedia Wikipedia has been blocked in Turkey through a law that allows authorities to ban access to websites deemed a threat to national security.

Critics say neither Erdogan’s vows nor the statements in the package regarding freedom of speech and media are sincere as thousands of people, including school children, have been prosecuted for “insulting the president” mostly on social media since he took office in 2014.

More than 160 media organizations critical of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been shut down and hundreds of journalists have been arrested in Turkey as the crackdown on dissidents widened following the 2016 failed coup attempt.

Erdogan also drew criticism for claiming that Turkey remained committed to its “zero tolerance” policy on torture, two days after an Ankara lawyers’ group said five foreign ministry personnel reported they had been tortured and mistreated in custody.

“Turkey has adopted a zero-tolerance attitude to torture. We have left claims of systematic torture behind us, and we are determined to protect our improvements in this area,” Erdogan stressed.

His remarks came only days after an Amnesty International campaign that demands independent medical care for detainees in Turkey’s southeast Sanliurfa province following reports of widespread torture of detainees published in Turkish media.

International reports released after the AKP government survived a coup attempt on July 15, 2016, including the US State Department’s annual reports on Turkey, have indicated widespread torture across the country.

Erdogan further announced the implementation of 24-hour criminal courts as part of measures to speed up procedures of Turkey’s strained criminal justice system.

He also promised an easing of the detentions and allowing more defendants their freedom during the process of trial.

“The opportunity will be provided to the elderly, pregnant and minors who have been convicted of some non-violent offenses for serving their sentences at home through an electronic monitoring center,” action in the package read.

“Saying that power for detention will not be used arbitrarily is just a confession that those powers have been used disproportionately,” lawyer Fikret İlkiz told T24 news portal, adding that the reform package was merely a repetition of old vows.

The president also expressed that lawyers would be provided with green passports, a type granted to civil servants that allows visa-free travel to certain countries.

“But of course, not to all lawyers,” Erdogan added.

According to the EU report, an estimated 1,546 lawyers have been prosecuted, including 274 who have been convicted of membership in a terrorist organization as of January 2019.

“There are around 500 lawyers under arrest and awaiting trial,” the report also said.

Veysel Ok, co-founder of the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) and prominent free speech and press rights advocate known for his defense of journalists’ rights, spoke to Euronews Turkish about the reform package.

“For any judicial reform to be effective [in Turkey], the structure of the Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSK) must change. They should be freed from the shadow of the ruling power over them,” Ok argued on Friday.

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