ISTANBUL — WITH two crucial voting dates closing in, Turkey is trying to push through more democratic reforms and improve its human rights record.
On Dec. 14, the European Parliament votes on whether to let Turkey join the European Union's customs union. The customs union - a first step for Turkey to get its foot in the door of the EU - will take effect Jan. 1, if approved.
And on Dec. 24, Turkey's parliament will hold national elections. An interim coalition government Prime Minister Tansu Ciller has put together will govern until then.
The vote dates give a sense of urgency to enacting democratic reforms here and improving Turkey's human rights image abroad.
On Saturday, the parliament agreed to amend the notorious eighth article of the Antiterrorism Law, which stipulates punishment for "separatist propaganda."
The amendment eliminates the often-abused ambiguity as to what constitutes "separatist propaganda."
In the past, any written article or statement made in an interview in support of basic human rights for Kurds - an ethnic minority that makes up about one-fifth of Turkey's population of 160 million - would be interpreted as an attempt to provoke separatism.
More freedom to talk openly
With this amendment, more freedom of expression is allowed. Authors or social scientists, for example, will be allowed to consider various solutions to the Kurdish problem. And they will not be condemned for supporting the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK), the separatist insurgency in southeastern Turkey.
Until now, the loose definition of "separatist propaganda" caused the jailing of scores of intellectuals calling for a more realistic approach on the Kurdish problem.
Some 172 Turks are under detention or in jail, charged with the offense stipulated in Article 8. Hundreds of people are also facing trial on the same charge.
Last month, for the first time, a foreigner was put on trial under the same law. Aliza Marcus, an American journalist working for Reuters news agency in Turkey is charged with "inciting hatred." She filed a story last November reporting on the government's burning and forcible evacuation of Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. The amendment of the Antiterrorism Law is expected to lead to the dropping of charges against Ms. Marcus.
The same is also expected for many other Turkish journalists, novelists, socialists, and intellectuals. Best known among them is Yasar Kemal, a popular author of Kurdish origin whose novels have been translated in many foreign languages and who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature. Mr. Kemal has been accused, under the Antiterrorism Law, for the views he expressed in an interview with a German magazine, where he called for the end "of the dirty war against the Kurds."
As the government and parliament swiftly acted to make the necessary legal adjustments over the weekend, a High Court partly rescinded a harsh sentence handed down last year on a group of Kurdish parliamentarians.
The High Court of Appeal decided to release two of the six Kurdish parliamentarians, who were earlier sentenced to 7-1/2 years imprisonment for expressing pro-PKK views.
But the High Court upheld the jail sentences against four of the parliamentarians, all members of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Workers' Party, which was outlawed last year.
The four, including Leyla Zana - a well-known politician and human rights activist recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize - were accused by the State Security Court last year of separatism and for cooperating with the PKK.
The High Court's verdict to uphold the sentence means the four parliamentarians will remain in prison until the year 2005, if no further action is taken.
Many here say that this action will satisfy critics at home and abroad. "The obstacles for the customs union have now been removed, a government spokesman said. "We feel confident that our European friends will appreciate our efforts to raise democratic standards."
A half-baked effort?
But European critics, particularly members of the European Parliament, said the actions were only half-measures. The EU had expected a full cancellation of the sentences imposed on the Kurdish parliamentarians.
Two European parliamentarians, Pauline Green, a socialist, and Claudia Roth, leading the Greens, expressed disappointment over the verdict. Both said they were expecting the High Court to annul the sentences and release the other four politicians. "With such a verdict, there cannot be and should not be any access to the customs union," Mrs. Roth said.
But foreign diplomats in Ankara say that the European Parliament will approve the deal. "It's hard to predict how the European Parliament will vote," said one EU representative.
"But we believe many parliamentarians will reckon Turkey's gestures demonstrating its determination to improve political conditions in the country," he adds.
Turkish officials stress that the Kurdish parliamentarians have the right to refer the court's verdict to the European Human Rights Commission. And the lawyers for the four politicians say they will apply to the European body. "Turkey will respect the verdict of the European Court," Mrs. Ciller says.