Turkish PM promises to speed up reforms for EU
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday his government would speed up political reforms required to join the European Union after stalling for months amid opposition from nationalist parties.
Erdogan told his AK Party, facing a closure case in the Constitutional Court for alleged Islamist activities, that parliament would pass next week an amendment to a law criticized by the EU and human rights groups as limiting free speech.
"Other steps which will bring Turkish democracy forward will follow this on a fast track," he said without elaborating.
Ankara began coveted EU membership negotiations in late 2005, but membership talks have been held back by the continued division of Cyprus, slow progress in EU-mandated reforms and frosty attitudes in EU countries such as France.
The EU has said the free speech reform is a crucial test of the predominantly Muslim but secular country's commitment to political reform.
Speaking in Brussels, European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn gave a cautious welcome to the proposed amendment.
"It was good news to hear today of the initiative in the Turkish parliament to amend articles of the Turkish penal code on the freedom of expression," Rehn said at the opening of an Istanbul Centre in Brussels.
"Provided that the reform succeeds in ensuring the freedom of expression, it will be good news for Turkey and its European perspective," he said, two days before accompanying European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso on an official visit to Ankara.
The government has pledged for more than a year to amend a controversial article used by nationalist-minded prosecutors to take hundreds of intellectuals and journalists, including Nobel Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk, to court for "insulting Turkishness".
Under the reform of the article, the president will have to give the green light before prosecutors can press charges and the prison sentence will be cut to two from three years.
"It is out of question that we shall weaken our efforts for our EU goal," Erdogan said.
"The process from now on will once more show our government's determination on the EU road. We will have the opportunity to evaluate the road map (with Barroso and Rehn) for the future," he said.
Analysts say the government's new reform pledge is a risky but correct move at a time when the ruling party faces a legal attempt to close it down.
Turkey's secular elite, which includes the judiciary, army generals and university rectors, believes the AK Party is trying to undermine the separation of state and religion.
The Constitutional Court agreed last week to hear a case brought by a chief prosecutor to have the AK Party shut down, arguing that it is trying to create an Islamic state.
The prosecutor has also called for 71 AK Party officials, including Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, to be banned from politics for five years.
The AK Party, which has Islamist roots, denies the charges and is preparing its defence.
The case is expected to take months and the threat of protracted political instability has unsettled financial markets.
"Erdogan should not be looking for a way out of the problems in Brussels but in parliament," opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli told his party.
The government abandoned plans on Monday to make changes to the Turkish constitution to head off the closure threat after failing to get the backing of the MHP, whose support would be needed to push constitutional changes through parliament.
(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Brussels, writing by Paul de Bendern; editing by Andrew Roche)
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