Human rights group Amnesty International has criticized a bill passed this week in French Parliament to criminalize denial of the 1915 killing of Armenians in Anatolia as genocide, saying the legislation violates freedom of expression.
"This bill, if implemented, would have a chilling effect on public debate and contravene France's international obligations to uphold freedom of expression," said Nicola Duckworth, Europe and Central Asia Director at Amnesty International, according to a statement released by the Amnesty International on Tuesday. "People should be free to express their opinions on this issue -- in France, Turkey and elsewhere."
Turkey Drops Heavily in Press Freedoms Rankings
Turkey took a big step backward in press freedom rankings, losing 10 places to place 148th out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders', or RSF, World Press Freedom Index for 2011 made public Wednesday.
Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan came right at the bottom of the 10th annual list by the press freedom group, with the same clutch of European states -- led by Finland, Norway and Estonia -- at the top. Turkey's fall came as a result of the pressure against journalists and media outlets.
"Far from carrying out promised reforms, the judicial system launched a wave of arrests on journalists that was without precedent since the military dictatorship," the report said on Turkey.
According to the report, 2011 saw an escalation in the judicial harassment of journalists in Turkey, "despite the diversity and energy of its media." The RSF also criticized the country's anti-terrorism laws.
"Under the pretext of combating terrorism, dozens were jailed before being tried, above all, in the investigations into the Ergenekon conspiracy and the KCK [Kurdistan Communities Union], an alleged political offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK," the report said. "The unprecedented extension in the range of arrests, the massive phone taps and the contempt shown for the confidentiality of journalists' sources, have helped to reintroduce a climate of intimidation in the media."
Ergenekon is an alleged ultranationalist, shadowy gang accused of planning to topple the government by staging a coup initially by spreading chaos and mayhem. It is also thought to be an extension of, or a different name, for the "deep state," which is an alleged unofficial organization of bureaucracy and military operating behind the scenes of the official state structure.
The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
This year's index saw many changes in the rankings that reflect a year in which many media organizations paid dearly for their coverage of popular uprisings against veteran autocratic leaders, RSF said.
"Control of news and information continued to tempt governments and to be a question of survival for totalitarian and repressive regimes," said the Paris-based group.
RSF said it was no surprise that the same trio of countries - - Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan -- were bottom of the list because they were "absolute dictatorships that permit no civil liberties".
"They are immediately preceded at the bottom by Syria, Iran and China, three countries that seem to have lost contact with reality as they have been sucked into an insane spiral of terror," it said.
Turkish President Approves New Election Law
Turkish President Abdullah Gül approved a new law that will see his term expire in 2014, his office said on Wednesday, ending months of speculation over the length of his presidency.
Gül was elected president, a largely ceremonial role, with the support of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in 2007, but it has been unclear whether his term would last five or seven years.
The change could be significant for the ambitions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Erdoğan plans to draft a new constitution to replace one framed after a military coup three decades ago, with reports suggesting that he favors creating a more presidential style of government.
There has also been speculation in Turkey that Erdoğan wants to become president before his third, and final, term as prime minister ends in 2015.
The AKP, a socially conservative party that sprang from a banned party, won 50 percent of the vote in a parliamentary elections last June, largely thanks to Erdoğan's dominant personality and Turkey's rapid economic growth.
Under the new law, the seven-year term applies only to the current presidency. All subsequent terms would be five years.
Before becoming president, Gül had been foreign minister in Erdoğan's government. He was the AKP's first prime minister after it swept to power in 2002, but stepped aside when Erdoğan, who had been barred by the courts from contesting the election, won a parliamentary seat in a by-election a year later.
Confusion over the length of his presidency stemmed from constitutional changes made after he was elected by Parliament in 2007. Gül was elected for a one-time, seven-year term as president, though there were already proposals, subsequently passed in a referendum, that the presidency should be for five years, for a maximum of two terms.
CHP Accuses Government of Covering Dink Hit Probe
Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has voiced concern that prosecutors could use a probe into the sex tape of former Chairman Deniz Baykal to mount a fresh judicial onslaught against the main opposition party.
On how the investigation was progressing, Kılıçdaroğlu said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had failed to keep promises ordering the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, to investigate the scandal.
"Let me put it like this: You will see over the coming days a special authority prosecutor will come up with a file about the CHP and there will be fuss and commotion again. They will again use imaginary names, anonymous tip-offs and secret witnesses to fabricate something," Kılıçdaroğlu said in an interview with the private news channel CNN Türk. He did not elaborate further.
Insisting on accusations that the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was protecting state officials in the probe into Hrant Dink's murder, Kılıçdaroğlu alleged the authorities had concealed a critical testimony by a former intelligence officer.
"A former intelligence expert gave testimony to the Interior Ministry's chief inspector. This testimony includes some very important details on Dink's murder and the Ergenekon probe and is in the case file, but lawyers could not see it because of a secrecy order," he said.
The CHP said the party's extraordinary Congress will be convened in late February or early March. There will be no race for chairmanship, but Kılıçdaroğlu challenged any prospective rivals.
"I wish more people would become candidates for chairmanship and, I hope, for democratic competition within the party. I will destroy the old mentality; solidarity and peace will reign within this party," he said.
On Wednesday, the CHP submitted a censure motion to Parliament against Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin on grounds he neglected his duties and failed to protect the judiciary's independence.
Kılıçdaroğlu lashed out at Ergin, saying the texts of parliamentary questions submitted by the CHP had been used in an indictment as evidence of attempts to discredit the government.
"Can such an accusation be considered normal in another democratic country? This prosecutor is prejudiced and should be investigated. The justice minister is responsible for that as the head of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors [HSYK]," Kılıçdaroğlu said.
In a separate development, HSYK launched a preliminary inquiry into the chief judge and prosecutor in the Dink murder case after the two clashed publicly over the contentious verdict in the case.
The board said in a written statement it had appointed an inspector to conduct the inquiry, prompted by remarks judge Rüstem Eryılmaz and prosecutor Hikmet Usta suggested to the media after the court's ruling that no illegal organization was involved in Dink's murder, sparking public indignation.
In an unprecedented move, Erılmaz said he was not satisfied with the outcome, but defended the verdict on grounds that it was based on evidence made available to the court. Usta responded, saying the court had sufficient evidence an organized group was behind the murder, slamming the court's decision to acquit police informant Erhan Tuncel, who had been accused of instigating the murder.
Turkey, Russia Converge on Syria, Iran Crises
Davutoğlu and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, also said the two countries have almost the same position regarding Iran.
"An immediate halt to the bloodshed and an implementation of the reform process in Syria is important. Turkey and Russia share a similar stance on these issues," Davutoğlu said at a joint press conference with Lavrov. "We are always ready to work with Russia, which has an important role in the region, to solve the Syrian crisis through intense dialogue. We believe Russia could make a significant contribution on this issue."
"Russia wants the bloodshed to end, and we are in favor of a peaceful solution to the crisis through political means," Lavrov said.
Davutoğlu said Turkey's position with Russia was very similar on the Iran issue and talks on Iran's nuclear program should resume rapidly. He said Turkey was ready to host the talks, if Iran returned to the negotiation table. Lavrov confirmed that Russia was in favor of the nuclear talks being held in Turkey.
The Russian foreign minister also said that Russia would consider "constructive proposals" to end the bloodshed in Syria, but was opposed to force or sanctions.
This comes one day after the U.S. State Department said U.S. and Russian diplomats held "very constructive" talks this week in Moscow, as part of an effort to resolve differences in the global response to unrest in Syria.
"We are open to constructive proposals that go in line with the set task of ending violence," Lavrov said, the Agence France-Presse reported. "Any UN Security Council resolution backed by Russia must firmly record that it cannot be used or interpreted to justify anyone's outside military intervention."
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman reported that "he had very constructive talks in Moscow," according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
"I wouldn't say that there was a major breakthrough. But I think walking through how we understand the situation on the ground, how the Russians see it and then beginning to strengthen and deepen our conversation about where we go next in the UN Security Council, was very useful," she said.
Syrian Regime 'Using' PKK, Dissident Says
The Syrian wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, is being used against Syrian protesters calling for an overthrow of the government and could soon be deployed against Turkey, according to several Syrian opposition figures.
The Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the PKK's Syrian branch, is currently acting in concert with the Syrian regime to suppress protesters, Mohammad Bassam Imadi, an opposition figure who was Damascus' former envoy to Sweden, told the Hürriyet Daily News Wednesday.
The claim was echoed by a high-ranking member of the opposition Syrian National Council, as well as the head of the likeminded Syrian National Alliance.
Imadi said Salih Muslim Muhammed, who has been the PYD leader since 2010, was not allowed to enter Syria before, but had now been allowed to return.
"I told Salih Muslim that he had been enemies with the regime in the past and asked him how he was allowed to operate in Syria now. He told me that the PYD had never been enemies with the Syrian regime," Imadi said, adding that he now understood Damascus was using the group against anti-government demonstrators.
"PYD leaders [also] told me that if Turkey intervenes in Syria, they would fight against Turkey. The Syrian regime uses the PYD militants as part of the Shabiha forces, which act as the shadowy militia of the regime that assists in its brutal crackdown," Imadi said.
Salah Eldin Bilal, a Kurdish-Syrian opposition member who escaped from the Syrian regime 15 years ago and has since been living in Germany, corroborated Imadi's claims, saying the Syrian regime had so many cards in his hands that it could use them against the other countries in the region.
"They can use some parts of the Kurdish movement against Turkey as they have used them before. However, as Syrian Kurds, we shouldn't be used against any other country, we want all Syrian people to be together," he said.
Turkey Following Investigation of Turks Killed in Germany, Bagis Says
Turkey's European Union Minister Egemen Bagis said Turkey was closely and seriously following the murder investigation of Turks by extreme rightists in Germany.
Speaking to Turkish reporters in Munich on Wednesday, Bagis said that Turkish Consul General in Munich was also following the investigations.
"It is humanity's common duty to fight against racism, which is like a disease," Bagis said, adding that Turkey also attached importance in integration of Turks in German society within that scope.
Recently, German officials discovered a neo-Nazi cell whose members have killed eight Turks in the past ten years. A hit list targeting 88 people, mostly immigrants, was found during a search into the homes of the suspected members of the neo-Nazi cell. The hit list includes prominent figures from Turkish and Muslim communities in Germany, as well as Munich politicians.
Bagis left for Davos, Switzerland following the press conference. He will attend a session on "The New Context in Europe" within the scope of World Economic Forum in Davos, and participate in inauguration reception of the forum.
Iraqi Shiite Leader Visits Turkey Amid High Tension
Al-Hakim's visit came a day after al-Maliki accused his Turkish counterpart, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, of provocation after he said Ankara would not stand by if Iraq were dragged into sectarian conflict.
Al-Hakim is not visiting Turkey to mediate between al-Maliki and the Turkish government, Turkish sources told the Hürriyet Daily News. A member of one of the leading Shiite clerical families in Iraq, al-Hakim is a known political ally of the Iraqi prime minister. Al-Hakim will have discussions with President Abdullah Gül, Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu Thursday. Talks with al-Hakim are part of Turkey's dialogue with Iraqi political parties, the sources said.
"All Iraqis are proud of belonging to their country and no other. Erdoğan has provoked all Iraqis with his comments, particularly those he believes he is defending," al-Maliki said in a statement released by his office in a clear allusion to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. "Sunni and Shiite Iraqis are brothers and do not need anyone claiming to defend them against each other," he said.
Erdoğan had warned al-Maliki's Shiite-led government that Ankara would have to take action if it sparked a sectarian war.
Ties between Baghdad and Ankara have been strained by Turkey's position on the Shiite-led government's move to arrest Sunni Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq's vice president, a measure triggering political turmoil and stirring more sectarian tensions. Al-Hashemi, currently in hiding through the Regional Kurdish Administration, will be handed over to the central government of Iraq to be tried in Baghdad next month, a top Iraqi official told the Hürriyet Daily News Wednesday.
"We are conducting negotiations with the Kurdistan Regional Government for the fair trial of Tariq al-Hashemi," said Ali Muhsin al-Allaq, secretary general of Iraq's Cabinet. "The Kurdistan government will hand over al-Hashemi to Baghdad next month, perhaps even sooner than that," he said, adding that talks between the parties had matured enough to yield a solution.
"We are not asking Turkey to mediate between the Kurdistan government and Baghdad," al-Allaq said. "Turkey would also not be pleased if some another country intervenes with Turkey's internal problems."
The central government understood the Kurdish government's concerns in relation to "a fair trial" of al-Hashemi, al-Allaq said, adding that the central government worked on the last details to ensure al-Hashemi would be safe in Baghdad.
"If he is guilty or not, he should be tried in Baghdad in a fair and transparent way," al-Allaq said. "The constitution of Iraq does not allow another country to intervene with our politics," said al-Allaq, supporting al-Maliki's recent statement warning Turkey it would suffer if its interventions in Iraq sparked conflict in the Middle East.
"Iraq and Turkey's relations have not yet been shaken. We should take it as the opinion of the politicians," al-Allaq said, adding that rising tensions between Ankara and Baghdad were "temporary."
"Sometimes the internal problem of the country can be interpreted in a different way by other countries," he said. The central government remained capable of settling political unrest between Iraq's central government and the Regional Kurdish Administration, he said.
"I believe the recent statements by the politicians will not affect relations between Iraq and Turkey," he said, noting the increasing bilateral trade and investments between Turkey and Iraq. "We still need Turkey to be with us," al-Allaq added.
Ankara-Baghdad ties have become more deeply embroiled recently as both Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu and Turkey's Economy Minister Zafer Çağlayan visited Arbil this month without visiting Baghdad.