GENEVA (Reuters) - Turkey is using a vague counterterrorism law to prosecute many activists, lawyers and journalists, often holding them for long pre-trial periods without access to a lawyer, United Nations human rights experts said on Thursday.
The U.N. Human Rights Committee said after reviewing Turkey's record for the first time that the right to due process is sharply curbed under its 1991 Anti-Terrorism Law and that some of its provisions are incompatible with international law.
"We're worried about the vagueness of the definition of the terrorist act in the 1991 law and the very far-reaching, unacceptable restrictions on the right of due process for accused people and the high number of cases in which human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and even children are charged under the anti-terrorism law," Michael O'Flaherty, committee vice-chairman, told a news briefing.
He added: "Not for terrorism, but for the free expression of their opinions and ideas, in particular in the context of non-violent discussion of the Kurdish issue."
Almost 100 journalists are in prison as well as thousands of activists, lawyers, politicians, military officers and others. Most are accused of plots against the government or support for outlawed Kurdish militants.
The U.N. committee, composed of 18 independent experts, examined the records of five countries, including Turkey, in upholding fundamental civil and political rights.
During the debate, they voiced concern about Turkey's anti-terror law's restriction of access to a lawyer for the first 24 hours when they said the risk of torture was the highest.
Erdogan Iscan, director-general of Turkey's foreign ministry, said the Anti-Terror Law allowed authorities to protect the public and ensure a swift judicial process. It was in accordance with international human rights treaties.
The right to contact a lawyer was an absolute right and authorities had a policy of zero-tolerance to torture, he said.
The experts urged Turkey to bring its laws into line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a landmark U.N. pact ratified by 147 states including Turkey.
"Detainees do not have access to an effective mechanism to challenge the lawfulness of their pre-trial detention and do not always in practice have prompt access to a lawyer," they said.
Activists and journalists are prosecuted under provisions including a ban on criticising the military, they said.
The watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists says Turkey has jailed more reporters than Iran, China or Eritrea.
Although Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan won a third term last year, many secular Turks fear his socially conservative AK Party has Islamist tendencies that threaten the secular republic. There is growing criticism of his authoritarian style of rule.
Jailed Kurdish militants on hunger strike may start to die within the next 10 days, Turkey's main medical association warned, saying the prime minister's dismissal of the protest as a "show" risked hardening their resolve.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Myra MacDonald