Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has praised Turkey's democratic progress, but questioned respect for free speech and media freedoms, joining mounting international misgivings over Ankara's record.
Despite major advancements in human rights and women's rights in recent years, Turkey faces "difficulties regarding freedom of expression, as many other countries have pointed out. The subject of whether journalists are working freely is also an issue," Stoltenberg said during talks with Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek Monday.
Çiçek responded that the majority of jailed journalists were charged for terror-related offenses, and not for their reporting activities, slamming European countries for failing to give Turkey adequate support against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.
"There is a misevaluation regarding journalists. They are not in prison for doing their job. They are in prison for being members of a terrorist organization, forging documents and other such illegal activities. Evaluating them as journalists would be a serious mistake," he said.
Referring to a court case in Denmark against Roj TV, the alleged mouthpiece of the PKK, Çiçek said the station was already making efforts to find itself a new base in another Scandinavian country in case it is banned in Denmark.
"We hope our friends in Norway will show greater sensitivity to our fight against terror," he said.
"Unfortunately, there isn't sufficient international cooperation in the fight against terror. The terrorist organization receives a considerable amount of support from Europe."
In further remarks, Stoltenberg praised Turkey's economic growth, stressing that bilateral cooperation could be expanded especially in the energy, shipbuilding and seafood sectors.
The government's democratic credentials were also on the agenda of Stoltenberg's meeting with main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, sources of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, said.
Voicing his concerns, Kılıçdaroğlu stressed lengthy pre-trial detentions had become a punishment in themselves and the special authority courts had degenerated into a government tool to bully and silence critics.
"Those issues are very important and should be carefully followed," Stoltenberg was quoted as saying in response.
Later in the day, the Norwegian leader also held talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Their meeting was still under way when the Hürriyet Daily News went to print.
U.S. Delegation Discusses Iran Sanctions with Turkish Officials
A delegation from the United States held talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Monday to discuss the latest economic sanctions on Iran to pressure the Islamic republic to abandon its nuclear program the West believes is a front for developing nuclear weapons.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns had separate talks with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and discussed unilateral sanctions by the U.S. on Iran due to its controversial nuclear program, as well as other regional developments.
Iran, which says it only seeks to harness nuclear energy for energy production and research purposes, has sharply increased its threats and military posturing against stronger pressure, including the U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's Central Bank in an attempt to complicate its ability to sell oil. Tehran also has been angered by the West's efforts to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, including a possible ban on European imports of Iranian oil.
President Barack Obama approved new sanctions against Iran a week ago, targeting the central bank and its ability to sell oil abroad. The U.S. has delayed implementing the sanctions for at least six months, worried about sending the price of oil higher at a time when the global economy is struggling.
Burns' visit came days after Davutoğlu visited Tehran to discuss, among other things, the nuclear standoff between Iran and the West. Davutoğlu offered to host the next nuclear talks in Turkey -- a move Iran welcomed.
Turkey is bound by UN sanctions against Iran, though it opposed the last round of measures in 2010, and it insists it is not obliged to follow non-UN sanctions. Turkey is also evaluating whether to seek a waiver from the U.S. to exempt Turkish oil importer Tüpraş from the new U.S. sanctions on institutions that deal with Iran's central bank.
U.S. ally Turkey is among the biggest importers of Iranian oil and gas. It gets about 30 percent of its oil from neighboring Iran, and Tüpraş, Turkey's biggest crude oil importer, is a big purchaser of Iranian crude.
Turkish diplomats said Burns and Turkish officials also discussed the Cyprus problem, the unrest in Syria and the political instability in Iraq.
Iran Envoy Slams U.S. on Turkey Ties
The United States aims to harm relations between Turkey and Iran, Iranian envoy Bahman Hosseinpour said ahead of the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns' talks with Turkish officials Monday.
"They try to destroy relations between Turkey and Iran. But, as Turkey and Iran have yet to develop their relations, those ties became unshakeable by any winds," the Iranian ambassador said in a press conferenc, adding that the two countries were "saying good words to each other, but it was time to put these into action."
Burns was to hold talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu Monday night when the Daily News went to press. Burns' visit to Turkey coincides with growing concerns over an armed conflict between Iran and the U.S. in the Strait of Hormuz, after Washington issued a series of sanctions against Iran which would penalize foreign financial institutions who do business with Iran's Central Bank.
The U.S. measures could affect Turkey's energy trade with Iran and may be an issue during talks, a Turkish diplomat told Daily News. Ankara considers seeking exemption from the U.S. sanctions.
Iran's Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani will visit Turkey on Jan. 11, and the Iranian foreign minister will attend joint economic commission meetings Jan. 18 in Turkey.
CHP Leader May Face Immunity Cut, Probe
The public prosecutor in Istanbul's Silivri district is seeking the revocation of the main opposition leader's parliamentary immunity so that he can face charges of "attempting to influence a fair trial" and "insulting public servants on duty."
Public Prosecutor Ali İşgören sent an official notice to the Justice Ministry Monday to initiate the process of filing a case against Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. Before the CHP chief could stand trial, the justice minister would need to approve the request and send it to Parliament to be put to a vote.
The main opposition party criticized the prosecutor's move in withering terms.
CHP Deputy Chair Birgül Ayman Güler said the move was another government-backed attempt to silence the opposition and challenged the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to lift Kılıçdaroğlu's parliamentary immunity so that he could stand trial.
"It seems that the AKP government, which has silenced the universities and politicized the judiciary, is now targeting the main opposition, which is resisting those dictatorial practices," she told reporters Monday in Ankara after a meeting of the CHP leadership. "We are throwing down the gauntlet to both the court and the AKP. They can lift the immunity of both our chairman and all our lawmakers."
Asked how Kılıçdaroğlu had received the news, Güler said the CHP leader was calm and only said: "Are they going to take me to Silivri as well?" before the party's central administration board returned to its agenda.
The file against Kılıçdaroğlu is based on comments he made after a Nov. 9, 2011, visit to two CHP jailed deputies at Silivri Prison, where suspects in the Ergenekon coup case are being held.
Kılıçdaroğlu likened the prison to a "concentration camp" and said he could not bear to call members of the court "judges."
"They call this democracy and justice. Can you call him a judge, a judge who does not act with his conscience?" Kılıçdaroğlu had said, adding that the judicial system in Turkey was "under the control of the political authority.
The prosecutor's office acted on Kılıçdaroğlu's remarks and prepared a two-fold indictment against him, charging him with "attempting to influence a fair trial" and "insulting members of the court."
Mehmet Durakoğlu, the vice-president of the Istanbul Bar Association, said the main opposition leader's statement could not be perceived as an attempt to affect a fair trial.
"The ones who have the power in their hands, like the ruling party, may affect a fair trial, not the opposition leader," Durakoğlu told the Hürriyet Daily News over the phone Monday. "The suspects in Silivri Prison are still being tried, which means they are presumed innocent. Kılıçdaroğlu's speech defended the suspects' innocence. If it were the opposite of the situation, then we could claim that he was trying to influence the court," Durakoğlu said.
In a written statement he made through his lawyers Monday, imprisoned CHP Deputy Mustafa Balbay said: "If there were a fair trial, then we could talk about an attempt to affect it."
CHP Deputy Mahmut Tanal described the investigation as a "politically engaged decision."
Tanal said he filed several criminal complaints against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over his statements in which he blamed members of the Constitutional Court for being "militants," but his complaints were denied in a "non-suit" decision since there was "no need for an investigation."
"This investigation into Kılıçdaroğlu reveals how the judiciary has been politicized. There is a serious double standard. If my complaints were denied, the same should have happened here. When we compare the cases, we clearly see that this investigation is a political move," he said.
Tanal also criticized the prosecutor's charges that Kılıçdaroğlu attempted to influence a fair trial, saying the CHP head did not mention anything on the merits of the Ergenekon case and noting that critical statements could not be construed as an attempt to influence a trial.
Controversy Over Basbug Trial Growing
Opposition parties insisted Monday that former Chief of General Staff İlker Başbuğ should stand trial at the Supreme Council, charging that his arrest was another indication of the government's creeping authoritarian practices.
"The Constitution says chiefs of General Staff are tried at the Supreme Council, but they are trying him at a special authority court. You should either respect the Constitution, or say openly that you do as you like regardless of what the Constitution says," said Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP.
Kılıçdaroğlu claimed constitutionally inscribed processes were being overlooked and said the former top general was being tried in specially authorized courts rather than in the Supreme Council where he ought to be tried if he stands accused of committing a crime in relation to his official duties. The Supreme Council is the name the Constitutional Court assumes when it is conducting a trial in a criminal case.
Oktay Vural, deputy group chairman of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, also said the Supreme Council should handle Başbuğ's case.
"The fact that he is being tried at a special authority court is proof that those investigations are being manipulated for political ends," Vural said. "The aim is to scare and bully the opposition."
According to the Turkish Constitution, the chief of General Staff can only be tried in the Supreme Council for charges related to his post. However, the daily Sabah reported the decision for Başbuğ to be tried in civilian court came after a related decision last year in which the Supreme Council rejected accepting a case directed against former Chief of General Staff Işık Koşaner, saying the claims were not related to his post.
The prosecutors in Istanbul also took legal action against Başbuğ for charges not related to his post, the daily Sabah reported.
Meanwhile, the head of the Parliament Human Rights Commission Ayhan Sefer Üstün said he could not understand why there was insistence that Başbuğ be tried in the Supreme Council.
"No one can claim that attempting a coup is within the definition of the duties of a chief of General Staff," Üstün said, adding that the Supreme Council's decision would not be any different than a civilian court.
Others disagree, however, and say such comparisons cannot be made since the Constitution has defined which court may judge the chief of General Staff.
"The Constitution itself says the president, as well as the prime minister, Cabinet members and the chief of General Staff can only be judged in the Supreme Council," chairman of the Ankara Bar Association, Metin Feyzioğlu, told the Hürriyet Daily News. "What Başbuğ is charged with is not unrelated to his post."
Pro-Kurdish Deputy Says Weapons Equals 'Insurance of Kurds'
In remarks that are likely to spark controversy, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, Deputy Leyla Zana said "weapons are insurance for Kurds" as long as the Kurdish issue exists.
Commenting on recent debates over the possibility of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party , or PKK, declaring a "unilateral ceasefire," Zana said she does not believe that "anything that is unilateral would be meaningful."
"We have now reached a point in the armed struggle. I never debate laying down arms," she was quoted as saying by a Frankfurt-based daily on Tuesday. "They [weapons] are Kurds' insurance. As long as this problem [Kurdish issue] exists, those weapons are a guarantee for Kurds."
The deputy argued that there is mutual distrust between Kurds and the Turkish state and that the state should take more steps to eliminate this lack of confidence.
"Kurds are victims of injustice and the state who committed this injustice. Kurds' laying down arms should not be discussed without granting a status and a legal guarantee for Kurds," she said.
"But I am in favor of silencing weapons because there should be no more youth bloodshed."
Zana's remarks follow her controversial statements last month in which she argued that although Kurds initially wanted autonomy, they now think this is not enough, calling for a referendum on independence for Kurds.
The Kurdish politician, who was in Germany to attend a conference about the history of Kurdish migration to Europe, told the Kurdish news portal Rudaw that "Kurds should determine their own future."
"Some Kurds in Turkey want autonomy. The question is how many of them want autonomy. There has to be a discussion on this issue as well," Zana said. "I believe Kurds should be able to decide on their future on their own. It is true that we initially demanded autonomy, but today the Kurds in Turkey believe autonomy is not enough."
French Government to Take Armenian Resolution to Senate Agenda
French Minister of Relations with Parliament Patrick Ollier said Monday that the French government would take an Armenian resolution criminalizing the denial of Armenian allegations pertaining to the incidents of 1915 to the French Senate's agenda on January 23.
The lower house of the French parliament adopted in December a resolution that criminalizes rejection of Armenian allegations pertaining to the incidents of 1915. Only 70 out of 577 parliamentarians joined the voting of the resolution, which was adopted with majority of votes.
The resolution envisages "one-year prison term and 45,000 Euro fine for those who deny genocide recognized by French laws." French Parliament had recognized so-called Armenian genocide in 1915 on January 29, 2001.
The draft criminalizing the rejection of Armenian allegations had first been approved in 2006, but it could not become a law as French President Nicolas Sarkozy prevented its presentation to Senate.
Now, the Senate's approval is necessary to make the resolution a law.
Turkey strongly opposes the issue of the incidents of 1915 being used as a tool in French politics. Many believe that French President Sarkozy supports the Armenian resolution in order to garner support from France's Armenian population that number around 500,000.
France will hold the first round of this year's presidential election on April 22 and the second round run-off on May 6. Sarkozy is running for a second term.
If the resolution is not adopted at the Senate by February 22, 2012, when the parliament and senate will recess for presidential elections, it will be invalid.