The most important concept that must be highlighted in the new constitution is justice, according to the majority of the people living in the Aegean province of İzmir, and who expressed their expectations and demands from the new charter.

A total of 54 percent of the participants in the Constitution Conciliation Commission's meeting Sunday in the Aegean province, under the "Turkey Speaks" initiative, expressed the new charter should respond to the question of "justice," well ahead of "freedom" and "equality," both of which received 18 percent of the votes. İzmir, a stronghold of the secularist Republican People's Party, or CHP, is a rare province where the ruling party's influence remains weak.

The number of participants prioritizing "justice" was similar in other meetings held across the country, with 58 percent in Konya and 60 percent in Ankara voting for "justice" as a top priority.
The participants were also asked how they perceived the current Constitution and whether they would like to have a new charter. Almost 41 percent agreed a new constitution was a must, a number drastically less than the people of the southeastern province of Diyarbakır; 82 percent of their participants voted for a new constitution.

Deputies in Prison

"One of the deputies we have elected is still behind bars. Our mayor faces the risk of hundreds of years' imprisonment as a result of unending police operations. Of course we will seek justice and we will push for it," a participant who wished to remain anonymous told the Hürriyet Daily News Sunday.

Mustafa Balbay, a prominent journalist who was elected to Parliament from the ranks of the CHP last year, has not been released from prison, along with seven other deputies from different parties. A prosecutor demanded a sum of 397 years of jail for Mayor Aziz Kocaoğlu due to alleged corruption claims.

A parliamentary commission to coordinate the works of drafting the new constitution was set up last October with equal representation of the four parties represented in Parliament. The Constitution Conciliation Commission and a prominent civil society organization under the leadership of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodities Exchanges, or TOBB, are touring the provinces of the country to take the pulse of the people and their expectations.

According to Rifat Hisarcıklıoğlu, the meeting in İzmir was the most crowded one since the "Turkey Speaks" platform was launched. The organizers said 750 people joined the meeting and about 250 could not enter the hall due to limited space. İzmir was also the venue with the highest observed female participation. Around one third of the participants were female. In addition, half of the participants had a university degree.

"I know how İzmir contributed to the democratic achievements of our country in recent history," Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek said. "And I know perfectly that we will get the same contribution this time as well."

Turkish Foreign Minister in Landmark Visit to Minority Leaders

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu paid landmark visits to Turkey's minority religious leaders in Istanbul on Saturday, discussing regional problems in the Middle East, as well as underlining the importance of dialogue, religious freedoms and equal rights.

The visits marked the importance of dialogue between Muslims and Christians and other religious groups amid ongoing tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East and the Balkans, sources from the Turkish Foreign Ministry told Hürriyet Daily News Sunday.

Davutoğlu first received Deir Za'faran Monastery Metropolitan Saliba Özmen at the Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul. During the meeting with Özmen, Davutoğlu stressed the importance Turkey attached to dialogue in surrounding countries, reports said.

Davutoğlu later visited Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in the patriarchate in Istanbul's Fener district, and the two later held a press meeting.

"We are going through a transformation in the Middle East. Turkey's peace is related to the peace of its surrounding countries. We are giving high importance to all religious communities in the region to be in peace," Davutoğlu told reporters.

Bartholomew, meanwhile, expressed his pleasure with Davutoğlu's visit and said it was important that all religious minorities in Turkey live together in peace.

"We have told Minister Davutoğlu that we pray for the health of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan daily. Erdoğan's health is important for not only Turkey but global peace as well," Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew and Syriac Mor Gabriel Monastery Foundation head Kuryakos Ergün visited Turkish Parliament on Feb. 21 and made a presentation regarding Turkey's new charter talks.

"Davutoğlu's visit in fact focused on Bartholomew because he wants him and other Christian religious leaders to play a role in the Middle East. His real aim it to reach the Christian communities in the Middle East through Bartholomew," Laki Vingas, the spokesman for Anatolian Greek foundations and a member of the Foundations General Council, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Following the press meeting, Davutoğlu continued his tour and paid visits to the acting Turkish-Armenian Patriarch Aram Ateşyan, the Ancient Syriac Community's Metropolitan Yusuf Çetin and Chief Rabbi İshak Haleva and spoke about equal rights.

"For us the rights of all our citizens are equal. Together we will overcome the prejudices that are contradictory to this big culture that Turks and Armenians built together," Davutoğlu said following his meeting with Ateşyan.

Ateşyan said it was the first time a Turkish government remembered their community and said Davutoğlu's visit was very meaningful.

The visits took place at a time when Christian groups in the Middle East feel worried about their future during the Arab Spring, and it is normal for Turkey to be involved in such an undertaking of continuing dialogue with minority religious groups, the Foreign Ministry sources said.

Davutoğlu Compares Syrian Killings To Srebrenica Massacre

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on Saturday said brutal violence perpetrated by President Bashar al-Assad in Syria resembles the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, which was later recognized as genocide.

"The way Syria is heading resembles the situation in Srebrenica," Davutoğlu said during a joint press conference with his Italian counterpart, Giulio Terzi, calling on the international community to strengthen its criticism of the violence that has been inflicted against the Syrian people by their government for over a year.

Srebrenica -- with its Muslim-majority population -- was a United Nations-protected area besieged by Serb forces throughout the 1992-95 war for Serb domination in Bosnia. There, Serbs proceeded to round up Srebrenica's Muslims and killed over 8,000 men and boys, marking the climax to the 1992-95 Bosnian war that claimed 100,000 lives. An international court later labeled the killings as genocide.

Davutoğlu claimed the international community should take preventive measures, including providing military assistance to opposition forces, in order to discourage the Assad regime from committing further atrocities.

"The international failure to agree on a course of action over Syria is giving Assad courage to continue the brutal crackdown," Davutoğlu said.

Russia and China, political supporters of the Assad regime in Syria, wielded a double veto in a vote on a UN Security Council resolution calling on Assad to step aside, drawing the ire of the international community. Since then, the Security Council, which is the only legal body able to decide on a military intervention to stop the violence in Syria, has been rendered ineffective.

Stressing that the crimes committed by the Assad regime are no different to war crimes, Davutoğlu remarked that "blocking humanitarian aid or not admitting UN representatives to Syria to offer emergency relief to the Syrian people is also a separate crime."

In similar remarks to Davutoğlu, Terzi claimed that Assad had lost his credibility as a state leader, so he had to step down and to allow the election of a new leader, following the example of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. Saleh resigned from power after anti-regime uprisings started in Yemen at the same time as the Syrian uprisings.

On Friday, Davutoğlu held a four-hour meeting with the Syrian National Council, or SNC, which was presented as the "legal representative" of the Syrian people during an international conference held in Tunisia on Feb. 24. SNC representatives pressed Davutoğlu to initiate an immediate humanitarian assistance campaign for people in the besieged towns of Syria. The UN-estimated death toll in Syria since the beginning of the uprisings in March 2011 has reached 7,500.

More Syrians Enter Turkey

Twenty-two Syrian nationals entered Turkey through the southern province of Hatay's Reyhanli town on Saturday. Yusuf Güler, the district governor of Reyhanli, told the Anatolia news agency that the group of 22 Syrians included children and women who escaped from ongoing clashes in Syria. According to Güler, the Syrians will stay at the tent city erected by Turkish charity Kızılay (Red Crescent) in Reyhanli. A total of 135 Syrians fled to Turkey on Friday, bringing the weekend total of Syrian refugees traveling to Turkey to more than 150.

Opposıtıon CHP Strıves to Change Image of Relıgıon

Main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said Sunday the CHP would work on changing the perception it was anti-religion, a view, he claimed, was created by the ruling party as propaganda.

"For years, the AKP [ruling Justice and Development Party] and similar parties made efforts to spread the perception that CHP is 'against religion' and they carried out propaganda in Anatolia. But we will break this. The CHP respects the beliefs and values of all," Kılıçdaroğlu said.

Cementing his victory over intra-party opposition last week, Kılıçdaroğlu elaborated on his new roadmap in an interview with the daily, Radikal, recalling that the headscarf issue in universities was resolved with the approval of CHP. He emphasized that CHP was not against religious beliefs.

In a heated debate, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan previously accused the CHP of being annoyed by the existence of the imam-hatip religious schools and suggested the main opposition aspired for "a less-religious generation."

In further remarks on the issue after a visit to journalist Doğan Yurdakul, who will undergo minor heart surgery this week after his release from prison, Kılıçdaroğlu said the CHP "respects people's beliefs, and we are against exploitation of religion for political gain. Sometimes the AKP mentions this perception, and it saddens us. Such discourse is not suitable for the development of Turkish democracy."

Commenting on the Turkish army's legal shield demand for soldiers against alleged crimes committed while "fighting against terrorism," Kılıçdaroğlu said extending the prime minister's authority over such investigations would "water down its purpose."

The Turkish army has demanded a legal shield for soldiers against alleged crimes committed while "fighting against terrorism," in a similar way afforded to the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, members, the daily Akşam reported.

The draft submitted to the Prime Minister's Office by the General Staff proposed adding a provision to military or civil legislation that will require permission from the prime minister or the minister of defense before an investigation is launched against military personnel assigned to fight terrorism for their alleged crimes committed on duty.

The Turkish army's request came after the AKP rushed a bill Feb. 17 in a bid to stave off a controversial probe into the MİT chief and four other intelligence officials on charges MİT colluded with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

New Demılıtarızatıon Step on Government Agenda

The interior ministry is working on a new bill to place the Gendarmerie General Command, or JGK, under the Interior Ministry, in a move that will accelerate Turkey's stalled process of demilitarizing its politics and increasing the influence of civilian governments, sources inside the ministry said.

This bill, however, will be narrower in scope compared to the previous attempt, the same sources say. This, they note, is due to reservations voiced by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the previous bill.

Last year, the government started implementing a new anti-terror strategy, following the deaths of 24 soldiers at a military outpost in the Silvan district, in the province of Diyarbakır, in an attack by the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The new strategy, which engages police departments' special operations teams and gendarmerie squads in rural areas, has been successful to a significant extent. This new security concept also marked the first time a civilian government has held so much authority over the military in fighting the PKK.

As part of this change, the JGK agreed to report to the governor of a province where an operation is being conducted. However, this was never fully realized, mainly because the JGK is still part of the Turkish Armed Forces, or TSK.

The lack of coordination between the military and local officials came to surface once again when 34 civilians, mistaken for PKK terrorists, were killed. Naif Yavuz, the district governor of Uludere, where the tragic airstrike took place, said after the incident: "No information was given to me, the district governor, regarding the attack." He also noted that the gendarmerie did not have a legal obligation to contact local officials. This was another example indicating the importance of placing the JGK under the interior ministry.

The bill the ministry is working on seeks to change about 14 articles of the Law No. 5442 on Provincial Administrations and make some changes to the law on the TSK. If the changes are adopted, salary payments and JGK officers' promotions will be overseen by the interior ministry, as opposed to the TSK. The bill also changes recruitment procedures; individuals performing their compulsory military service will not serve in the gendarmerie if the bill is passed, indicating that the ministry is aiming for a higher level of professionalism in the JGK.

Sources say the first bill, which was submitted to Erdoğan last December, was vetoed by Erdoğan because it ran the risk of creating a staff vacuum inside the gendarmerie. The government has decided to go for a gradual transition to a system where elected civilians will wield more influence; hence the latest bill is narrower in scope.

Another reason why the scope of the reform will remain limited for now is the difficulty of changing the Constitution. A more comprehensive reform would call for changes to the Constitution, which is very difficult to achieve at this time, according to a recent statement from Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin. The structure of the National Security Council, or MGK, will have to be overhauled completely for a constitutional amendment to the articles defining the role of the JGK to be possible. These, so far, remain as problematic points for achieving further civilian control over military decisions and over counterterrorism operations.

The new bill will remove all district gendarmerie commands in all provinces, except for those suffering from terrorist activity.

A senior official close to the government said the bill would be ready to go to Parliament by April.

"This is an important step for demilitarization. If it is done later in the spring, when terrorist attacks are more common, the perception that this is a special law being passed to address terrorism. We don't want this to happen," the official said.

All Optıons on Table for Cyprus, Bagıs Says

Turkey might annex Turkish Cyprus if negotiation talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots to unite the Mediterranean island fail, Turkish European Union Minister Egemen Bağış said.

Egemen Bağış said "all options are on table" on the Cyprus issue including a two-state solution or making Turkish Cyprus a part of Turkey, in an interview with the Turkish Cypriot daily Kıbrıs released on its Web site Sunday.

"All options are on the table for a solution in Cyprus. The solution may be a reunification, agreed by the two [Cypriot] leaders and accepted by the two communities in the island. But there can also be a two-state solution or annexation of Turkish Cyprus to Turkey," Bağış said.

Still, Bağış praised the option of reunification in which all sides would be living in peace and security. Turkish Cypriot leader Derviş Eroğlu and Greek Cypriot leader Demetris Christofias have been holding talks to reunite the island, but the two sides have been unable to report any significant progress from the negotiations, which have been underway since 2008.

The EU minister said Turkey would support all the solutions as long as they were accepted by both communities of the island.

"There is only one point on which Turkey is sensitive: to ensure political equality between both parties in the island," Bağış said.

Meanwhile, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi on Saturday said more efforts were needed in Cyprus as the ongoing negotiations were not progressing. Speaking at a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoğlu in Istanbul, Terzi said: "There had to be tangible progress in Cyprus."

"The negotiations in Cyprus have not made progress. We will work with Turkey to overcome the problems in Cyprus," Terzi said.

Russıa-Arab Meet on Syrıa Set for March 10

Russia will meet with foreign ministers of Arab states to discuss the Syria crisis in Cairo on March 10, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday.

"I especially value today's chance to prepare for a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia and the Arab League states that will be held in Cairo on March 10," news agencies quoted Lavrov as saying after talks with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh.

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