An annual United States government report is adding Turkey, as well as Tajikistan, to a list of the worst violators of religious rights.
The report, to be released Tuesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, cites Turkey for "systematic and egregious limitations" on religious liberty. Turkey and Tajikistan are among a total of 16 nations listed by the commission as countries of particular concern.
The Turkish ambassador to Washington, Namik Tan, dismissed the commission's action as unjustified.
"Any unbiased eye will immediately realize that that's not where Turkey belongs in the USCIRF annual report," Tan told The Associated Press.
Among other problems, the report criticizes Turkey for regulating non-Muslim groups by restricting how they can train clergy, offer education and own their places of worship. He said the Turkish government began action last year to restore impounded goods to non-Muslim foundations.
"The categorization of Turkey as a 'country of particular concern' is naturally unexpected as much as it is unfair," Tan said.
Congress established the commission in 1998 to compile the reports for use by the president, the secretary of state, and lawmakers. Aside from Turkey and Tajikistan, the report also listed: Myanmar, North Korea, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
While the commission recommends action the U.S. government should take to encourage improvements in religious freedom in the various countries, the State Department usually narrows down the list to a smaller group it cites for particular concern in its own annual report on religious freedom. Those countries can be subject to sanctions.
As a NATO ally, Turkey stands out among the other countries cited by the commission and is unlikely to incur repercussions from the U.S. government. Indeed, the report seems at odds with the State Department's assessment of Turkey. When the department released its report last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Turkey for taking "serious steps to improve the climate for religious tolerance."
The report had been scheduled for release on Tuesday, but was obtained by The Associated Press one day earlier.
Three commission members issued a statement condemning the disclosures and complaining that one commissioner, Dr. Don Argue, had reversed his position on the Turkish question. The commission's Web site lists Argue as its vice chairman.
The commission's report also includes a watch list of countries it says require close monitoring because of violations committed or tolerated by their governments. Nine countries made that list in 2012: Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Laos, Russia, Somalia, Sudan and Venezuela.
Rights Abused In Local Prison, Deputy Claims
Severe rights abuses that include forced stripping's and physical abuse from a "beating squad" are occurring at a jail in the southern province of Osmaniye, an opposition lawmaker said Tuesday.
"We were horrified. The arbitrary administration of the prison and illegal practices are disgraceful. Nothing can justify the stripping of inmates and the examination of their anuses. Crimes against humanity are being committed there," Malik Ejder Özdemir, a member of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, and Parliament's Human Rights Commission, told the Hürriyet Daily News after his group recently visited the penitentiary. The commission will now pen a report on its findings, Özdemir said.
Özdemir said both male and female visitors to the prison were stripped for security checks, while inmates were also subjected to rectal examinations with the purported of aim of discovering whether they are smuggling drugs.
The lawmaker also decried severe disciplinary arrangements at the prison.
"There are special teams of about 10 people. According to the prison administration, the teams have been created under prison regulations. But the inmates call them 'beating squads,'" he said. "The prison administration has created an empire of fear. There is mistreatment and beatings."
Female inmates who are forced to take their children with them to prison are not allocated food for their sons and daughters, Özdemir said. The inmates complain that visitors are subjected to arbitrary treatment and harassment, that prisoners are forced to walk in a line looking down and that even "over-consumption of water" is a reason for penalties, he said.
Turkish Jail Term Suits To Euro Court On Halt Until Panel Decision
The European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR, announced it will not accept any case from Turkey in connection to long detention periods until September, because Ankara is currently drafting formulas to address the issue.
"The [ECHR has] decided to adjourn examination of [such] applications not yet communicated to the Turkish government and those lodged between now and Sept. 22, 2012," the Strasbourg-based court said in a written statement, adding that applications that have already been made would continue to be examined by the court under normal procedures.
The ECHR has called on Turkey to establish a special commission to handle cases on the excessive length of judicial proceedings and long detention periods before they are taken to Strasbourg as a means to address the backlog of cases.
"The court held, with regard to the applications pending before it and those lodged between now and Sept. 22, 2012, that Turkey had to put in place … an effective remedy affording adequate and sufficient redress in cases where judicial proceedings exceeded a reasonable time," the court said.
Turkey, which ranks after Russia in the number of cases taken to the ECHR, has been trying to reduce the number of cases at the court after they climbed up to nearly 3,000 complaints -- many of which were lodged in relation to long detention periods. The Turkish Justice Ministry and the ECHR negotiated on the matter recently and agreed to set up a special mechanism for those who want to complain about lengthy proceedings.
Justice Ministry Will Set Up Commission
The new commission will be modeled after an independent commission that was established in 2004 at the urging of the ECHR to compensate victims of terrorism. The Justice Ministry, who will decide on the mechanism's working procedures, will also be responsible for its establishment.
Establishing a special mechanism procedure has been used by the ECHR in recent years to deal with large groups of identical cases arising out of the same structural problem, it said. The European court will also examine the functioning of the commission before deciding whether it could formally become a special mechanism.
"Similar commissions have been established in some other countries as well. In Poland and in Italy, for example," Rıza Türmen, a former Turkish judge at the ECHR and current Republican People's Party, or CHP, deputy said.
Not A Solution For Lengthy Proceedings
Türmen said the establishment of the mechanism would save Turkey from being convicted due to the absence of an effective remedy for complainants of lengthy processing and detention periods.
"Cases about complaints on long judicial proceedings will first come to this commission. But this won't change the situation with regard to excessive proceedings. For example, though Mustafa Balbay could apply to this commission and could be compensated, his court case would continue. Also, Balbay will be able to apply to the ECHR. Therefore this commission is not a solution for excessive judicial proceedings," Türmen said.
Balbay, a CHP deputy, has not been convicted, despite spending three years in detention. He applied to the ECHR on the grounds that his right to a fair trial had been violated. However, the establishment of such a channel would be welcomed by the ECHR as it would not only reduce the number of cases to be heard, but would also improve Turkey's poor record at implementing the European court's rulings.
Structural And Systemic Problem
The ECHR has repeated its criticisms against Turkey on long judicial proceedings, saying it is the state's responsibility to deal with this problem.
"The [ECHR] had already found in numerous cases that the length of proceedings in Turkey, in administrative, civil, criminal and commercial cases was excessive. The court reiterated that states should organize their courts in such a way as to administer justice without delays which might jeopardize its effectiveness and credibility," it said.
Underlining that there had been repeated violations of the right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time, the court said it amounted "to a structural and systemic problem with the legal system."
In an effort to end a systemic problem concerning displaced Greek Cypriots who owned immovable property in northern Cyprus, Turkey established a similar commission to compensate or redress Greek Cypriot applicants. The mechanism has been successful, as many Greek Cypriots have applied to the Immovable Property Commission despite discouragement from Greek Cyprus.
AKP Bent On Education Bill Despite Cicek's Effort
Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek stepped in to defuse tensions over the controversial education bill, but the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, remained adamant and insisted that the draft would be put on debate at the General Assembly next week.
It emerged Tuesday that Çiçek had sent a letter to Education Commission Chairman Nabi Avcı, asking him to examine and review objections to the bill raised by the opposition at the Commission and to "do what is necessary," in line with the Constitution and Parliament's internal rules.
Çiçek met with the deputy group chairs of the AKP in another apparent effort at compromise, but the ruling party gave no sign of stepping back.
Speaking after the meeting, the AKP's Mustafa Elitaş said the AKP would go ahead with its plan to take the bill to the General Assembly on March 27 and have it passed in a week. The AKP rushed the bill through the Commission on March 11, in a session marred by unprecedented brawls that erupted after CHP lawmakers were stuck at the door of the tiny room, packed in advance by AKP deputies. Avcı took advantage of the chaos and hurriedly read out the draft, which was approved by AKP votes in half an hour without debate.
The CHP asked Çiçek to cancel the proceedings and return the draft to the Commission for a renewed debate. Avcı said Tuesday that he would assess Çiçek's letter, but added that he did not expect the bill to go back to the Commission for a re-vote.
The CHP Deputy Chairman Muharrem İnce dismissed Çiçek's mediation bid as a distraction tactic and urged the speaker to use his own authority to cancel the proceedings.
Turkey Debates Its Afghan Mission After Helicopter Crash
Turkish politicians are debating the necessity of Turkey's presence in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led peace mission while Turkish authorities say Turkey's Afghan mission is to help restore peace in the war-torn country.
"The same helicopter could crash in our country, too," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a joint news briefing with his Bulgarian counterpart, Boyko Borisov, in Ankara on Tuesday, as he countered increasing questioning of Turkey's Afghan mission.
A Turkish military helicopter crashed into a house near the Afghan capital on Friday, killing 12 Turkish soldiers on board and four Afghans on the ground.
Leader of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, Devlet Bahçeli said in a statement on Friday that the latest incident in Afghanistan, escalating violence in the war-torn country and the latest developments he described as "provocative" make it necessary to "reconsider our military presence there."
The crash was the deadliest in Afghanistan for NATO forces since August, when 30 American troops died when a Chinook helicopter was apparently shot down in Wardak province in the center of the country.
Erdoğan said it is very sad to observe that some politicians are exploiting these things, referring to questioning of Turkey's presence in Afghanistan.
Turkey has about 1,800 troops in Afghanistan and leads NATO operations in Kabul province. The force has suffered relatively few casualties because of its noncombat role. In 2009, two Turkish soldiers, one of them a colonel, were killed in a traffic accident in northern Afghanistan.
Although the latest helicopter crash was by far the deadliest incident involving Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, Turks questioning the country's presence in Afghanistan became a top-trending subject in Twitter in Turkey over the weekend.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement on Friday, reaffirming Turkey's commitment within the NATO-led ISAF command and said Turkey will continue helping Afghan people.
Aydın deputy of the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, Bülent Tezcan submitted a petition to Turkish Parliament, demanding Erdoğan to answer a series of questions about Turkey's mission in Afghanistan, ranging from Turkish causalities so far to the ongoing investigation into the accident on Friday that killed 12 Turkish soldiers.
Erdoğan recalled that Turkish troops are serving in Afghanistan as part of NATO mission and have never participated in any operation. Erdoğan linked Turkey's presence in Afghanistan as part of Turkey's claim to be what he called a "great country." Erdoğan said Afghan people helped Turkish people during their fight for independence after the World War I.
The Turkish army will not stay there forever, he said, and a decision to pullout from Afghanistan or extend the mission there is made by the Turkish Parliament.
While Turkey paid final respects to the slain soldiers in Ankara and other six provinces across Turkey on Tuesday, Turkish General Staff released a statement saying the Turkish army is in Afghanistan to help Afghan people.
The statement said Turkish troops are serving in Afghanistan to train Afghan national security forces and help Afghan people to advance security, stability and development. The statement also said that Turkish troops are not participating in dangerous operations such as demining, fighting against terrorism or drug smuggling.
Turkey's Permanent Representative in the United Nations Ambassador Ertuğrul Apakan also reaffirmed Turkey's commitment to help Afghans in restoring security and stability in the war-torn country.
"I would like to reiterate Turkey's strong support to Afghanistan. As long as Afghanistan continues its efforts to build a peaceful, safe and a democratic country, Turkey will continue to help Afghan nation reach that goal," Apakan said in a meeting of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
Turkey Pays Respects To Soldiers Killed In Kabul
Turkey bid farewell Tuesday to the 12 soldiers killed in a helicopter crash in Kabul last week as the country's top political and military leaders joined thousands of mourners in Ankara to honor the dead.
A somber military ceremony was held at the soldiers' garrison in Mamak, followed by funeral prayers at Kocatepe Mosque for five of the troops who were laid to rest in Ankara. The bodies of the other seven soldiers were flown to their hometowns for burial.
The military ceremony at the Peace-Keeping Brigade Command was attended by President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel, main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, as well as a number of ministers, politicians and senior army commanders.
Speaking at the ceremony, Brigadier General Mehmet Karadayı said the soldiers' deaths were a reminder of the major contributions that Turkish forces were making to stability across the world, from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo to Lebanon and Afghanistan.
"Our martyrs gave their lives for their mission of contributing to world peace," he said.
As the ceremony drew to a close, weeping relatives, among them young children, collapsed onto the coffins, wrapped in Turkish flags, to bid a last goodbye to their loved ones.
The bodies of the five Ankara natives -- Maj. Mithat Çolak, Capt. İlker Aydın, Capt. Adil Erdoğan, Lt. Tahsin Barutçu and Sgt. Maj. Salih Helvacı -- were then taken to Kocatepe Mosque for funeral prayers, which were joined by the same coterie of civilian and military leaders.
Thousands of people packed the mosque court to honor the soldiers as the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Mehmet Görmez, led the prayers.
"The martyrs had no other aim but to bring peace and humanitarian aid to our Afghan brothers. They gave their lives for this purpose," Görmez said.
The bodies of the other seven soldiers were flown to their hometowns -- Maj. Serkan Doğan to Tekirdağ; Maj. Şükrü Bağdatlı and Lt. Okan Melikoğlu to Ordu; Staff Sgt. Mehmet Akbaş to Isparta; Sgt. Önay Vurucu to Erzurum, and Lt. Murat Yıldız to İzmir.
The 12 soldiers perished when their Skorsky helicopter crashed into a residential building near the Afghan capital March 16, due to what is believed to have been a technical failure. Four Afghan civilians were killed on the ground. It was the deadliest incident involving Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan. NATO said there was no enemy activity in the area. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Turkey, which has about 1,800 troops in Afghanistan, is currently in command of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, in Kabul province. The Turkish troops are involved only in patrol missions and do not participate in combat operations.
Scores Injured As Nevruz Protests Lead To Clashes
Tensions continued to mount across eastern Turkey Tuesday as independent Mardin Deputy Ahmet Türk was rushed to hospital due to an injury sustained during a clash between police and demonstrators celebrating the Nevruz Festival, despite official bans.
Four police officers were also heavily injured during the demonstrations in Hakkari's Yüksekova district. Chief physician Abdullah Altan Özkaya from the private Dünya Hospital in Batman confirmed to the Hürriyet Daily News that Türk had been injured due to a gas bomb he was exposed to, but denied allegations of battery against the veteran Kurdish politician by police officers. Türk is currently in good condition, he said.
Türk, who is afflicted with a heart condition, was riding on a bus along with independent Van Deputy Aysel Tuğluk, the Diyarbakır Deputy of the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, Nursel Aydoğan, and Batman Deputy Mayor Serhat Temel, as well as other party administrators.
The passengers were caught in the middle while riot police were clashing with demonstrators in Nergiz Avenue in Batman and a gas bomb landed inside the vehicle. Tuğluk claimed that Türk was beaten by some 15 police officers after being subjected to pepper gas.
Official Celebration Canceled
Law enforcement officials also seized nearly two kilograms of remote controlled A4 plastic explosives reinforced with metal nails for cluster effect and a timing device near İtfaiye Square, the area designated for Nevruz Festivities in Van. A bomb demolition squad later destroyed the explosives.
The official celebrations that were planned for Wednesday in Diyarbakır have been canceled due to Tuesday's clashes, according to reports.
Meanwhile, in a message on the occasion of Nevruz, President Abdullah Gül called for "everybody to display caution and not to provide opportunity for attempts that could harm the climate of peace and fraternity." He stressed that "our differences and diversity are our greatest wealth" and that "everybody is an inseparable and equal part of this nation regardless of their ethnic roots, language, faith or political conviction."
"We are going to celebrate this meaningful day with our hearts and hands enjoined and cling onto each other tighter than ever," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said.
The Van Governor's Office also issued a written statement indicating that they had come in possession of intelligence that the followers of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, and the Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, were planning to undertake demonstrations using rocks and Molotov cocktails under the guise of celebrating Nevruz.
The celebrations, organized by the Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, in Van, turned sour when police intervened to stop a group of 30 demonstrators from entering the area designated for the festivities.
Law enforcement officials used tear gas against the demonstrators who responded by throwing rocks and later dispersed into the backstreets.
Clashes also broke out in the southern province of Mersin, where the Governor's Office had authorized celebrations to be held, which the Interior Ministry later revoked. When demonstrators, backed by the BDP, attempted to enter the field of celebrations, police forces intervened, leading to clashes in the area.
Police Officer Injured In Cizre During Nevruz Clashes Dies
A police officer who was critically injured after being shot by an unknown assailant during a Nevruz celebration in the Cizre district of the southeastern province of Şırnak on Tuesday has died.
Ahmet Toprakoğlu, 28, had been receiving treatment at Dicle University Hospital, but doctors were unable to save the young police officer. The state-run Anatolia news agency reported that the policeman died early on Wednesday. Toprakoğlu's body will be sent to his hometown in Adana after an official ceremony in Diyarbakır.
Violence reached a dangerous level on Tuesday during Nevruz celebrations -- a spring festival that in Turkey is mostly celebrated by Kurds -- when five police officers were shot by unknown individuals who opened fire on police in Cizre and in the Yüksekova district of Hakkari on Tuesday. Several other police officers were also injured in other celebrations.
In Batman, demonstrators attempting to march to the city's Tırmıl Square were stopped by police. Clashes erupted between police and the demonstrators. The Batman Municipality said police arrested 148 protesters, while 31 police officers and two civilians were injured in clashes.
Pro-Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, supporters celebrated Nevruz on Tuesday, reacting to a circular issued by the Interior Ministry to all governor's offices ordering that Nevruz events not be allowed before March 21. However, the spring festival is based on the vernal equinox, which occurred in the morning hours of Tuesday this year.
Three Municipalities Sign Sister Protocol
The eastern Turkish province of Diyarbakır's Sur district, the Palestinian city Ramallah and the northwestern province Çanakkale signed a "sister municipality" protocol on Monday.
Following the signing ceremony, Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic songs and folk dances were performed. The ceremony opened with the Sur Municipality children's folk dance team, which performed the traditional Palestinian folk dance "Dapgeh."
Making a speech, district Mayor Abdullah Demirbaş said: "I hope that the brotherhood between the Turkish and Kurdish people from Palestine to Çanakkale will become a model for governments. We have established a bridge for peace and we hope that everyone will pass from this bridge."
Ramallah Mayor Janet Michael said she had brought greetings from all Palestinian and Ramallah people.
"I hope God will dominate democracy and peace in the Middle East. Dozens of Palestinian people are waiting for their freedom in Israeli prisons. We are living under hard conditions amongst ruins. Cruelty continues in Palestine. We will make the entire world to hear about this twinning," she said.