France's stance toward Ankara's prospective European Union membership has not changed despite the contrasting economic fortunes of the crisis-hit union and a dynamic Turkey, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said.

"You know, my reservations have not changed. Even if we raised these reservations, in the situation of crisis, I do not think it would ease the task of Europe," Sarkozy said in an interview with the French daily Le Monde, published Sunday. "We just welcomed Croatia. The opening in Serbia is a perspective. First let's unite the European family before asking questions about those outside of Europe," Sarkozy said, reiterating his view that Turkey was not a European country.

"I wish we had the best relations with Turkey, of course. In my mind, it has an important role to play in the world, a role of a bridge between East and West. Is it in its interest for this role as a bridge between the two sides to join one side? I think it would weaken the role," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy said the EU was now a "two-speed" alliance, but insisted Britain would not be forced out of the bloc's single market. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel fell out with Prime Minister David Cameron at least week's EU summit when London refused to sign a pact imposing closer economic coordination between member states.

"We did everything, the chancellor and I, to allow the British to take part in the agreement. But there are now clearly two Europes," Sarkozy said, the Agence France-Presse reported. "One wants more solidarity between its members and more regulation. The other is attached only to the logic of the single market," he said.

Asked whether Britain, which has refused to join the single currency and opposed last week's fiscal pact, could still remain inside the EU single market, Sarkozy said: "We need Great Britain. We'd be greatly impoverished if we allowed its departure which, luckily, is not on the agenda."

Meanwhile, the head of France's financial regulator branded Cameron's Conservatives "the stupidest" right-wing party in the world for pushing its leader into confrontation with Europe.

"It's rare to see a European country truly refuse to reach a deal because of, to put it crudely, pressure from the finance lobby," Jean-Pierre Jouyet, chairman of the AMF market regulator, told France Inter radio. "For a long time we have thought the French right was the stupidest in the world. I think, in this case, the British right has shown that it can be the stupidest, in that it has served not its national interest but purely the interests of high finance."

Ankara Warns Paris of 'Irreparable Damage' if Genocide Bill Approved

Ankara has warned France of the "irreparable damage" that could ensue should France's latest move to criminalize denying that an alleged Armenian genocide took place in Turkey in 1915 be passed next week in the French parliament.

"Turkish efforts and contact [with French officials] are ongoing at the moment," Turkish officials told Today's Zaman on Monday, as they recalled statements from Ankara that urge France not to politicize a historical matter that is very sensitive for both Turks and Armenians.

"The French administration is well aware of the sensitivity of this issue [the Armenian genocide] for our country. We hope that no steps that could cause irreparable damage will be taken at a time when Turkey and France have entered a stable phase that could increase opportunities of cooperation at bilateral and international levels," a statement released by the Foreign Ministry said on Friday, as Ankara repeated once more that it regarded such attempts as "reoccurring events" ahead of elections in France.

Turkey's reaction to the move has been revived as the French parliament readies to vote a legislation that could make denying the 1915 events that took place in Turkey as genocide punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of 45,000 euros, the Anatolia news agency reported on Monday. The voting, however, is not the first time France has mulled over criminalizing the denial of the events as genocide, as the French National Assembly adopted a bill in 2006, proposing that anyone who denied the "Armenian genocide," would be punished, but the bill was dropped the same year before coming to the senate.

Since France officially recognized the genocide in 2001, stirring up heated but short-lived tension between France and Turkey, French governments have attempted to introduce penalties for denying the alleged Armenian genocide several times, all of which were turned down before gaining full force.

The debate was most recently revived in October, when French President Nicholas Sarkozy urged Turkey during a visit to Armenia to recognize the killing of Armenians at the onset of World War I as genocide and threatened to pass a legislation that would criminalize its denial if the country failed to do so. The president's remarks, which drew instant and sharp criticism from top Turkish officials, were claimed to have been "misunderstood," as his aide, Jean David Levitte, told the Turkish Embassy in Paris a few days after the incident. Citing diplomatic sources, Anatolia reported mid-October that Levitte stressed French appraisal of Turkey as a great country and that France did not want a faceoff with Turkey over the Armenian issue.

At the time, Sarkozy's words drew a stormy reaction from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who regarded his approach as "usual election-time fodder" aimed at pleasing the Armenian diaspora. Erdoğan also commented that he found Sarkozy's remarks ironic, coming from a leader of a former colonizing country, while other Turkish officials have expressed views that Sarkozy is trying to increase French influence in Armenia and have a stronger say in the Caucuses by abusing the sensitive issue between Turkey and Armenia.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Turkish EU Minister and Chief Negotiator Egemen Bağış retaliated against Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan's remarks that Turkey would be governed by a true European government that would bow in respect before the genocide monument in Yerevan, saying that Sarksyan was "overstepping his boundaries" with such remarks. "Nobody has the power to make Turkey bow down," Bağış told reporters, as he accused the Armenian government of weakening the people of Armenia with hunger and poverty and forcing half of the country's population to flee to other countries, including Turkey.

Turkey and Armenia have long been in a deadlock caused by the mass killings of Armenians during the fall of the Ottoman Empire, as Armenia insists the killings constitute genocide, while Turkey says the killings happened during civil war and people from all ethnicities and religions suffered tragic losses at that time.

Shield Plan, Terrorism to be Discussed During Panetta's Visit

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit Turkey later this week for talks that are expected to focus on enhancing defense cooperation and the ongoing fight against terrorism, according to diplomatic sources.

Panetta's visit comes just two weeks before the end of the year, by which time a U.S. radar system will be installed in eastern Turkey as part of NATO's missile shield project, officials have said. The radar, which has prompted Iranian reactions against Turkey, will also be on Panetta's agenda, according to sources.

"The fight against the PKK [outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party] will be a priority on the agenda for talks with Panetta," a diplomatic source told the Hürriyet Daily News Sunday.

The source said the Dec. 15-16 meetings will also touch on a $111 million deal between Ankara and Washington for U.S. drones that would be transferred from Iraq to Turkey to provide surveillance support in the fight against the PKK, as well as three AH-1 Super Cobra helicopters that the Pentagon will sell to Turkey.

The U.S. deployed four MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAV, at Turkey's southern airbase of İncirlik last month. The Cobra helicopters will be dispatched to Turkey in early January, sources said. Ankara has been asking the United States for the right to purchase four MQ-1 Predator surveillance drones and two armed versions of the UAV, the MQ-9 Reaper, but Washington has yet to respond because of its concerns that the sale would be vetoed in the U.S. Congress due to Ankara's policies regarding Israel.

"We keep requesting to purchase drones," another diplomatic source said.

Panetta is also expected to raise the issue of Turkey's strained relations with Israel. He recently called on Israel to find a way to normalize its relations with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan in order to break the isolation surrounding it and sit at the "damned" table with Palestinians.

Turkey's ties with its former ally Israel have been chilly since Israeli forces killed nine Turks in a raid on a Turkish-led aid flotilla bound for Gaza last year. Israel has refused to apologize or pay compensation for the deaths, leading Turkey to downgrade diplomatic relations and cancel all military deals.

Jewish Community Wants Protection in New Charter

One of Turkey's most prominent Jewish groups, the Quincentennial Foundation, has called for provisions against racism and anti-Semitism in the new charter at a meeting Sunday with members of Parliament's Constitution Conciliation Commission.

According to information obtained by the Hürriyet Daily News, foundation Chairman Naim Güleryüz said Jewish people in Turkey did not see themselves as "minorities" and wanted to be included in the future constitution as equal citizens of Turkey. The main emphasis of their presentation was on a "liberal and inclusive" constitution that does not marginalize anyone.

The main concern of the Quincentennial Foundation was "racism and anti-Semitism," Güleryüz reportedly said, adding that the Jewish people did not intend to open a debate into the controversial 1942 wealth tax that stripped many members of Turkey's non-Muslim communities from their fortunes.

Güleryüz said the new charter should lead to amendments in the penal code article that punishes incitement of hatred on the basis of social, religious and racial differences that would ensure full protection for minorities. Hate crimes should be prosecuted directly, he said.

The Foundation, established in 1992, takes its name from the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Sephardic Jews, who were exiled from Spain and found refuge in the Ottoman Empire in 1492. Prominent businessman Jak Kamhi is the group's honorary chairman.

Güleryüz said books on the alleged Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire are being published and even taught in classrooms around the world. Turkey, he said, could make a similar effort to promote the protection of human rights, highlighting the Sephardic Jewish community in Turkey.

Conflict Hits Syria Trade

The closing of the Turkish border with Syria has drastically hurt businesses, according to local merchants' complaints in Gaziantep, an industrially developed province in southern Turkey.

Trade with Syria has been the "bread and butter" of local merchants who sold products like women's textiles, electric heaters, electric home appliances, cosmetic products and kitchen products to Syrians across the border.

"Turkish products were very popular over there. We had very strong sales, but unfortunately now there are no longer any buyers," said Kilis Chamber of Commerce Head Mehmet Özçiloğlu. "Our trade is totally dependent on Syria. With the severing of relations with Syria, our trade has come to a complete standstill. Border trade is very important. It's the only source of income for local merchants."

Carpets are the local export from the region, according to statistics from the Southeast Anatolian Exporters Union, or GAİB.

"Thirty percent of our total carpet exports were sent through Syria to countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Now only those who can afford the $1,500 transit fee per truck can send their carpets through Syria," said Selahattin Kaplan, head of the Southeast Anatolian Carpet Exporters Union.

Local exporters were now forced to transport the carpets via ships, which could take 10 days to a month longer than land transport, Kaplan said.

Turkey and Syria had nearly $2.5 billion in trade volume in the last year, according to official data. Trade between the two countries is badly affected by the ongoing political disputes.
Two borders checkpoints out of six between Syria and Turkey were closed when the Daily News went to print Sunday evening.

Judicial Backlog Root of Lengthy Jail Terms, Justice Minister Ergin Says

Turkey has a chronic problem of lengthy jail terms for people who are under arrest pending trial without a conviction, but instead of introducing limits to the duration of arrest periods for people who have yet to be convicted, decreasing the judicial backlog to accelerate the legal process is what needs to be done, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said during budget talks in Parliament last week.

"If we were to reduce the jail period, then many people would be able to walk away, which will greatly upset the public, and we won't be able to handle the backlash from that," Ergin said.

During last week's budget talks, Ergin said the judiciary lacked the human resource base it needed. He said the government was working hard to address the problem of slow court processes, adding that, thanks to two regulations adopted in 2011, it had been possible to resolve 2.5 million cases before they were referred to court.

He also noted that the number of Council of State and Supreme Court of Appeals judges have been increased, saying that cases filed in the past used to pile up for at least six months prior to the recent legal amendments.

"Currently here are no files pending at the Supreme Court of Appeals. Any file that comes in is taken up either the same day or the next day. For the first time, the Supreme Court of Appeals is able to issue more rulings that the cases it gets," he said.

Ergin said shortening the period of arrests further at this moment would result in the release of about 2,427 people under arrest.

"These people include members of the terrorist [Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK], child molesters, people who have killed police officers, rapists and others that will irritate the society," he said, adding that early in 2011 some suspects were released after a new law restricting arrest periods was adopted.

The law, which went into force on Jan. 1, 2011, introduced restrictions to how long a suspect can be kept under arrest while awaiting or standing trial. It was the source of a major controversy as 10 key members of Hezbollah, who were to stand trial for the brutal killing of 188 people, were released. Some of them fled during this period before their appeal process could be completed.

However, not all experts agree. Addressing the sluggishness of the judiciary is important, but it won't be enough to prevent injustices, according to law professor Hakan Hakeri, the dean of İstanbul Medeniyet University's faculty of law.

Although, in theory, the minister's assertion made sense, Hakeri said.

"It is completely unacceptable to have arrest periods of up to 10 years because our judicial system is slow. The minister, in principle, is saying the right thing, but our system accepts keeping people in jail for 10 years without a conviction. This has to be shortened."

He admitted that there were problems with some of the releases in early 2011.

"Our system has two types of periods. Changing this for trials that are completed in a shorter amount of time is not the right thing to do," Hakeri said. "Especially in high criminal courts, five years is normal. The European Court of Human Rights [ECtHR] also agrees with that. But the specially authorized courts' authority to double that period, prolonging it up to 10 years, is wrong. It has to be changed."

He also noted that the Republican People's Party, or CHP, had submitted a proposal for that.

"I also know that the Justice Ministry is working on a remedy. We have problems in execution. Our judges order arrests too readily, and they execute it badly. This is something you can't change. But periods of arrest up to ten years should be changed," Hakeri said.

Lawyer Vahit Bıçak, who is also a professor of criminal law, said: "Both the judicial backlog needs to be addressed and the periods of arrest should be shortened. Unfortunately, the Turkish judicial system is very slow. Keeping suspects under arrest for long periods of time turns this into the execution of a jail term. The reputation of suspects and defendants should be protected. The ECtHR says four years is a reasonable time, no matter how complicated the case. Currently, it is 10 years in our country, much longer than the reasonably accepted average."

He said both problems had to be addressed.

According to Turkish law, until a verdict is approved by the Supreme Court of Appeals, the inmate is considered under arrest. Only after the approval of the Supreme Court of Appeals, which combines the functions of courts of cassation and appeals, does the inmate under arrest become a convict. Contrary to regulations in most European countries, in Turkey suspects are also considered under arrest after the local court verdict is issued but before it is approved by the Court of Cassation.

Iran to Check Stability of Hormuz Strait

Perviz Sarvari, a member of the National Security Council of Iranian Parliament, said the Iranian army will hold an exercise to check its ability to close the Hormuz Strait, a major route of world's oil traffic.

"İf the world would like to see this region as an unsecure place, than we will make the world an unsecure place," Sarvari said.

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