Countries at the Crossroads 2007 - Turkey

  • Author: Sarah Repucci
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    25 September 2007

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)


Turkey presents an ever-shifting dichotomy between democratic progress and resistance to reform. Although the ruling party has pushed through a host of legal and real improvements in areas such as freedom of expression, Kurdish and women's rights, and reduction of torture in police detention, setbacks have followed advancements. Media freedom, judicial independence, and civilian control of the military have not yet been fully consolidated in the Turkish system, with periodic ebbs and flows in recent years.

The prospect of European Union (EU) membership was the major driving force behind Turkey's reforms, both as an incentive for the government and as a justification to the public for sometimes painful change. Although the EU began membership negotiations with Turkey in June 2006, talks on some items were frozen the following December because of EU insistence that Turkey open its ports to Cypriot ships and planes (something Turkey refuses to do until the EU ends Northern Cyprus's economic isolation). As cautious and even anti-Turkish rhetoric has increased from the EU and its member states, support for EU membership in Turkey has cooled dramatically. Meanwhile, previously strong relations between Turkey and the United States have been strained due to disagreements linked to the war in Iraq, which borders Turkey.

The modern Turkish republic was founded by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk was a visionary who wanted to make Turkey a modern nation. He separated Islam from the state and banned such external signs of religion as the fez and the headscarf. He also created a Turkish identity and a nationalism that had not existed previously, under the Ottoman Empire. Although his party ruled uninterrupted for more than 25 years, he helped put in place a number of democratic institutions, which became an important legacy of his rule.

In 1980 Turkey experienced the most recent of three military coups that temporarily took power from the elected civilian government. The military-led government wrote a new constitution that Turkey's citizens approved in a 1982 referendum. This constitution – an adapted version of which is in use today – strengthened the role of the military and restricted many fundamental freedoms. Soon afterward, fighting began in the southeast that ultimately developed into a 15-year guerrilla war between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists.

Three subsequent events combined to spark a new era of rights and reforms in Turkey. A ceasefire was declared with the separatists after the capture of their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. In the same year, the EU accepted Turkey as an official candidate for membership in response to Turkey's initial application in 1987. As a final turning point, Turkey's financial system collapsed in 2001 and the IMF stepped in to help with restructuring and large financial aid.

In November 2002 elections, the new Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power. The AKP had grown out of the remnants of the Welfare Party – an Islamic-oriented party that had been banned after it was pressured out of power in 1997 by the military in a soft coup (the military did not subsequently assume power). Before being elected, however, the AKP had publicly renounced any intentions to change Turkey's secular orientation, and many of its supporters in 2002 voted for change, not religion. Because Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP's leader, had been banned from politics due to a prior conviction for reading an allegedly Islamic poem in public, he was not immediately permitted to become a member of parliament. After the AKP won a majority of parliamentary seats (a rare event in a country that has almost always been led by fragile coalitions), Abdullah Gul served as prime minister until the party used its majority to change the constitution and pave the way for Erdogan's leadership.

After he became prime minister in March 2003, Erdogan's government pursued a vigorous, pro-EU reform agenda, passing a string of constitutional amendments and legal packages and taking serious steps toward ensuring their implementation. Turkey's rapid progress in terms of rights and freedoms was widely acknowledged in the first years of Erdogan's rule. However, with mixed messages coming from various EU quarters on whether Turkish membership is realistic and with elections for Turkey's president and prime minister due in 2007, movement toward reform has slowed dramatically. Meanwhile, Turkey's own internal security situation has deteriorated again as fighting in the southeast has resumed.

Moreover, despite the recent changes, Turkey's military-drafted constitution fundamentally lacks the inclusiveness, the clearly defined rights, and the limitations on state power that are crucial for democracy in a multicultural society such as this. While Turkey's population has generally supported the reforms, they were broadly imposed from the outside. This is symptomatic of the lack of public engagement in politics in the country; in its place is a great faith among the public in the state's ability to serve their best interests. The culture of freedom and democracy advocated by government rhetoric has yet to pervade the general population. The education system is still weak, with insufficient opportunities for the poor. Today, those who use claims of Turkish nationalism to justify infringement of others' rights and security are more of a threat to open democracy than any traditional authoritarian tendencies.

Nevertheless, progress has not stopped altogether. For example, in 2005-06 a new penal code went into effect, an ombudsman office was established, and implementation of earlier reforms was systematically improved. Turkey continues on its path, if more slowly than before, toward increased democratic governance.

Accountability and Public Voice – 4.40

Free and fair electoral laws and elections: 5.25
Effective and accountable government: 4.00
Civic engagement and civic monitoring: 4.33
Media independence and freedom of expression: 4.00

Turkey is a parliamentary democracy. A president, elected by parliament (the Turkish Grand National Assembly), is head of state but is not formally involved in policymaking. The current president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, was elected in 2000 for a nonrenewable seven-year term. Presidential elections are scheduled for May 2007. The National Assembly is composed of 550 deputies elected by universal suffrage to five-year terms. The prime minister is technically chosen by the president, although in practice he/she is the leader of the party in power. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 2007.

Turkish laws establish a framework for democratic elections generally in line with international standards, although with certain restrictions. A party can be shut down if its program is not in agreement with the constitution, and this can be widely interpreted to include support for Kurdish insurgents and opposition to state pillars such as secularism and the military. Restrictions are used to target certain groups. While even small gatherings can face difficulties, the most extreme example is the Kurdish Democratic People's Party (DEHAP), which is accused of being the political arm of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) – recently renamed Kongra-Gel and considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government as well as by the EU and the United States. DEHAP has faced continual legal battles and arrests. Still, DEHAP does not represent the interests of most Kurds, who, when living outside the southeast, are generally more integrated and participate in mainstream politics.

A so-called double barrier impedes entry to the National Assembly. In order to win seats a party must be organized in at least half of the Turkish provinces and one-third of their districts, and it must also obtain at least 10 percent of the votes cast nationwide. As a result of this provision, many parties with considerable support are not represented in the National Assembly, particularly if their base is regional. Limits on campaign donations are not enforced, and party financing is not transparent.1

The last National Assembly elections, in November 2002, were widely judged both domestically and internationally as free and fair. A large number and variety of parties participated in active campaigning, the ruling parties lost, and opposition parties won seats in the National Assembly, thus attesting to the ability of the electorate to effect change. In fact, the old guard saw a sharp drop in support amid widespread public discontent with official corruption and inept handling of the economy (manifested in particular by the 2001 financial crisis). Only two parties passed the 10-percent threshold – the AKP and the Republican People's Party (CHP). The AKP won just 35 percent of the total vote but ended up with more than 70 percent of the seats, a stark demonstration of the limitations of the election rules.

Eight parties now hold seats in parliament due to changes in party affiliation. Nevertheless, opposition parties continue to lack the power to truly challenge government policy. The AKP holds about 350 seats and the CHP holds about 150. The Motherland Party, which was voted out in the last election, holds more than 20 seats; no other party holds more than 10 seats.

Observers continue to debate the extent to which the AKP has abandoned its former Islamist aspirations. Although the party has supported some loosening of restrictions on religious activity, such as the bans on headscarves and on the admission of students from religious schools to secular universities, it has not made any serious attempt to undermine Turkey's secular underpinnings. The party comprises both conservative Muslims and more moderate yet religious Turks who favor reform. AKP policies sometimes seem aimed at one or the other, and nationalist rhetoric has increased as the 2007 elections approach. The risk of EU disapproval seems still to be a check on extreme policies.

Although no parliamentary system has complete separation of powers, legislative oversight of Turkey's executive branch is especially weak. Very little legislation actually originates in the National Assembly; instead, it is drafted by the government for review by parliamentarians. The party leader wields great power, and most decisions are made by the prime minister and a small group of advisers. Civil servants in Turkey are officially hired on the basis of examinations, but patronage undeniably plays a large role in practice.2

Civic groups have grown in strength and number since the 1980s, when they were mistrusted and tightly controlled. State-societal relations have improved, and civic groups have become more engaged in public policy. However, political groups still suffer from a lack of capacity and public support.3 Recent reforms have eased restrictions on the establishment of associations; the impact of the Law on Associations, adopted in November 2004 and ending many outdated limitations, has been especially positive. Still, associations cannot form if they have "prohibited objectives" (Article 30 of Law on Associations) or are "in contravention of law and morality" (Article 56); these vague terms leave room for interpretation, allowing judges and prosecutors to target those whose activities they disagree with.4 In addition, while the most severe restrictions on NGO funding have been lifted, limits on foreign funding remain. NGOs are often taken to court, and although most cases end in acquittal or fines, they make work difficult and at times economically unfeasible for such groups. Some human rights defenders have been intimidated, tortured, and imprisoned.5 Those who refer to Kurdish rights are particular targets. NGOs and others are consulted on draft laws, but critics complain that public consultation is perfunctory and input not taken seriously.6

Turkey's constitution establishes freedom of the media (Articles 28-31), and EU harmonization reforms have included many measures to reduce political pressure on the media – including an improved Press Law in 2004. Nevertheless, major impediments remain. Turkey's Supreme Council of Radio and Television (RTUK) has the authority to sanction broadcasters if they are not in compliance with the law or its expansive broadcasting principles; fines and cancellation of programs or licenses occur. In February 2007, television station Kanal Turk reported attempts by officials to intimidate it into curtailing reporting critical of the ruling party.7

Implementation of the 2005 penal code (see "Rule of Law") was delayed after large public protests; media groups criticized the fact that it would have made sentences longer in cases in which the law was violated by the media. The code was implemented in June 2005 after relevant changes were made. However, some crimes under the new penal code can still be punished with imprisonment, in violation of the new Press Law. Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk – who was charged with "insulting Turkishness" as a result of his comments to a Swiss newspaper regarding the 1915 mass killings (which many call genocide) of Armenians by Turks and the deaths more recently of Kurds at the hands of Turkish security forces – is one of many journalists and writers tried under the now infamous Article 301 of the 2005 penal code, which makes illegal the ill-defined act of insulting the state and state institutions. As of December 2006, International PEN was monitoring more than 80 cases of writers and journalists on trial in Turkey.8 Charges are dropped more often than not, but trials are time-consuming and expensive, constituting a deterrent to free speech. The prime minister launched a number of libel cases against writers and cartoonists in 2005.

Journalist Hrant Dink was shot dead outside his Istanbul office in January 2007. He had complained to the police of receiving death threats for some time before. His confessed, Turkish assailant did not act as part of any group with political aims but disapproved of Dink's position on the Armenian killings. Dink had been convicted with a suspended sentence under Article 301 for comments he had made on the same subject. He was Turkish of Armenian descent but did not support either the Turkish government or nationalist Armenian diaspora views on the issue.

Cultural expression is also limited by the effects of the restrictive laws, although the Turkish Publishers Association has reported that publication of books related to sensitive topics has become easier.9 Novelist Elif Shafak, for example, was charged with but acquitted of denigrating Turkish national identity as a result of comments made by her fictional characters in one of her best-selling books. Internet freedom can also be affected; a court ordered Turkey's main internet provider to ban access to video-sharing website YouTube in March as a result of a video making fun of Ataturk. A draft bill on internet crimes would ban access to Turkish websites with content related to crimes defined under the new anti-terror law (see "Rule of Law").

Censorship is not explicit, but censorship and self-censorship occur among both editors and journalists, who are concerned about violating the many restrictions.10 Furthermore, media organizations are nearly all owned by giant holding companies with interests in many sectors beyond media, and they therefore influence news to serve their own business interests, in addition to allegedly trading positive coverage for political favors. The quality of the Turkish media is low.

Some very positive steps have been taken to expand media freedom. Perhaps most significantly, a series of recent laws have increasingly allowed broadcasts in minority languages, including Kurdish. The first broadcasts took place in 2004, and in 2006 a ban on local broadcasts as well as limitations on the length of cultural (though not political) programs was lifted. A taboo on discussing the 1915 Armenian killings was broken in 2005, when Bilgi University hosted a conference on the topic; the conference is indicative of a more blunt and critical public discussion of previously sensitive subjects, which has gradually increased in Turkey over the past 10 years. Still, more dramatic steps need to be taken to ensure full freedom of expression.


  • To reduce voter disfranchisement and produce more political pluralism in the National Assembly, the 10-percent threshold should be lowered to a level that allows for greater representation of the popular vote.
  • The grounds for sanctions of political parties should be restricted to only those expressions that provoke violence, and dissolution of political parties should be a last resort.
  • Press offenses should not be punishable by imprisonment and need to be unambiguously defined to preclude varying interpretations across courts. Article 301 should be abolished.
  • The RTUK should be restructured to include members chosen by civil society in addition to those chosen by the government, and the broadcasting principles should be changed to give it more limited authority.

Civil Liberties – 3.82

Protection from state terror, unjustified imprisonment, and torture: 3.71
Gender equity: 3.75
Rights of ethnic, religious, and other distinct groups: 3.75
Freedom of conscience and belief: 3.67
Freedom of association and assembly: 4.20

Many of the EU harmonization reforms that Turkey has passed since 2001 have been specifically geared toward protection of civil liberties, including increased minority and women's rights, broadened freedom of association and religion, stronger measures to protect against and prosecute torture, and a more democratic penal code. Moreover, the government is watching implementation closely. It has set up rights-monitoring boards to receive complaints and conduct independent monitoring of police stations to help prevent torture. A Parliamentary Human Rights Investigation Committee now investigates abuses, and police, judges, and public prosecutors receive human rights training. Long-term detention has been effectively curbed by reforms.11 Turkey ratified a European Convention protocol abolishing the death penalty in February 2006. Nevertheless, problems remain, particularly (although not entirely) with implementation.

Torture and ill-treatment by officials continue to be an issue in Turkey. Although the Council of Europe in 2006 reported a continued decline in ill-treatment by law enforcement personnel, cases are still reported.12 The 2005 penal code increases the punishment for those convicted of torture, and the legal framework is widely considered comprehensive, but mixed results on implementation have been reported.13 In addition, trials are excessively long and often drag on beyond the statute of limitations. Although a number of cases have been brought against security forces, convictions are rare and appropriate sanctions are rarer.14 The situation continues to improve, but slowly.

Prison conditions are harsh in some facilities, including treatment such as solitary confinement and medical neglect. Most controversial are the so-called F-type prisons, which isolate their prisoners. A Turkish lawyer ended a 10-month hunger strike in January 2007 after the Ministry of Justice issued a decree doubling the amount of time these prisoners can socialize. An especially contentious imprisonment is that of Abdullah Ocalan, former leader of the Kurdish guerrilla movement, who is serving a life sentence in solitary confinement on a Turkish island and allegedly has not had adequate access to his lawyer or to visitors.15 Ocalan's trial was ruled unfair by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in May 2005, but he has not yet been retried.

The government is unable to prevent non-state violence. Traditionally, such violence has come from Kurdish separatists in the southeast. Their organization, the PKK, ended its five-year ceasefire with the government in 2004, initiating a surge in attacks on civilians. Many recent attacks have been claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, whose connection to the PKK is unclear. Violent clashes with security forces have increased as well, particularly in 2006; observers have blamed both separatism and general discontent with social and economic conditions. The PKK renewed the ceasefire in 2006, but the government did not recognize it, and attacks on both sides continued. Riots took place in southeastern cities after some PKK funerals in March 2006; 10 civilians were killed.

In November 2005, a bomb in a bookstore in a southeastern city sparked protests and violent clashes with police throughout the region. Detained protesters alleged ill-treatment in custody and lack of access to lawyers.16 Two Turkish security officials were convicted in connection with the bombing. However, evidence of government pressure, and especially the dismissal of the prosecutor involved, led critics to allege a lack of independence and thoroughness in the final, inconclusive investigation.17

Women's rights in Turkey are not fully realized in the cities and are observed even less in rural districts. Although the legal framework is strong, women still face discriminatory practices. NGOs and the Ministry for Women and Families report that about a third of women in Turkey are victims of violence.18 A 2004 report by Amnesty International also documented forced marriages, deprivation, and lack of access to justice, which, it said, were tolerated and even endorsed by community leaders and government officials.19 Women are also discriminated against in certain professions. Only about 28 percent of women participate in the formal workforce, and just 7 percent outside agriculture. Although women have had the right to vote and run for office since 1934, only 4 percent of parliamentarians are female. Education rates for girls are generally high, but in some rural provinces more than 50 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 14 are out of school. The World Economic Forum ranked Turkey 105th out of 115 countries surveyed in terms of its gender gap.20

Honor crimes, including killings – in which family members punish women who are considered to have brought dishonor on their family through situations such as pregnancy while unmarried or having been raped – continue to occur among traditional families. The 2005 penal code includes more severe punishment for these crimes among its other provisions designed to improve women's rights. A Turkish parliamentary delegation visited the southeast in December 2005 to raise public awareness about honor killings, and implementation of the new law has indeed had some effect.21 In contrast, women's groups have reported rising suicide rates among women; some claim the stricter laws are provoking this as families pressure women in an attempt to circumvent the law.22

Turkey is a destination and transit country for trafficking in women and children for prostitution and forced labor. The government has been making serious efforts to curb human trafficking, including a hotline number for victims and numerous arrests.23 The 2005 penal code includes an article mandating prison terms for traffickers.

Most of Turkey's population is Muslim, and many citizens are devout. While the constitution protects freedom of religion, the Turkish republic was set up on the premise of secularism, in which state and religious affairs are separated. In practice, this has meant considerable government control of religion; most prominently, the Directorate of Religious Affairs regulates the country's mosques and employs their imams, who are civil servants and are occasionally instructed on what to say by the government. Perhaps most contentiously, external signs of piety are banned in public institutions, which means that women are not allowed to wear headscarves in public universities and government offices, and observant men are reportedly dismissed from the military.24 There are periodic protests against the headscarf ban, although the European Court of Human Rights ruled in June 2004 that it is legal. The AKP dropped its attempt to introduce an easing of the ban in the 2005 penal code.

Under the 2005 penal code, discrimination on the basis of personal characteristics is illegal. Minorities in Turkey are defined by religion, and only Jews (about 25,000 of whom live in Turkey), Greek Orthodox Christians (3,000), and Armenian Orthodox Christians (50,000) are recognized.25 These groups are not integrated into the Turkish establishment. Although their rights are generally respected, freedom of religion is difficult for non-Muslims. Moreover, there are many other groups that likewise do not belong to the dominant Sunni Muslim sect and that have less protection. Other Christian and Muslim sects – including Alevis, who practice a combination of Islam and pre-Islamic religion – as well as mystical religious-social orders, have no legal status, and some of their activities are banned. Priests and churches were targeted violently on a few occasions in 2005-06, in some cases resulting in deaths.

The Kurds are the largest group of non-ethnic Turks in Turkey, estimated at about 12 to 15 million people.26 Many are well integrated and suffer no problems. However, the legacy of the 15-year guerrilla war in the southeast, in which more than 35,000 people were killed,27 as well as Ataturk's emphasis on Turkishness over multiculturalism, has left the Kurds facing restrictions on their language, their culture, and their freedom of expression. The situation has improved with recent reforms, especially the start of Kurdish-language broadcasts (see "Accountability and Public Voice"). However, 2003 regulations allowing for classes in Kurdish permitted only private courses, and bureaucratic obstacles and financial problems led the last five Kurdish schools to close in 2005. Kurds voicing support for improved rights are targets for arrest.

Kurds suffered severe human rights abuses and institutionalized discrimination during the 1990s insurgency. About 35,000 compensation claims have been processed so far,28 and Kurds have clearly benefited from broader human rights reforms. But village guards – a civil defense force first put in place by the central government in the southeast during the insurgency – continue to be insufficiently accountable, and compensation is reportedly lacking (see "Rule of Law").

In July 2005 a new law on people with disabilities was passed, which added "disability" to the list of characteristics against which discrimination is punishable under the penal code. The law also promises better access for disabled persons to public areas and services but lacks the sanctioning power that may be required for enforcement. The interests of people with disabilities are addressed by the High Council of Disabilities, which brings public officials together with nongovernmental groups. Although the council has admirable aims, the needs of such people continue to exceed the limited services provided. Employers are required to reserve 3 percent of their workforce for employees with disabilities, but discrimination persists. Information about government services and regulations is not readily available in formats accessible to people with disabilities. No enforceable laws protect people with mental illnesses from arbitrary detention. A September 2005 report exposed severe abuses of patients in psychiatric hospitals, including inappropriate use of electric shocks.29

The constitution protects freedom of assembly, and reforms have decreased the number of restrictions. However, broad language in laws leaves room for interpretation. Despite an official end to bans on demonstrations, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights reported 34 meetings and demonstrations prohibited by authorities in 2005. Moreover, police regularly disperse peaceful public gatherings and continue to use excessive force in some cases.30 In March 2005, police violently dispersed an unauthorized demonstration in Istanbul marking International Women's Day. Witnesses saw police beating and kicking demonstrators. The government investigated and punished those involved.

Employees have the right to join trade unions and cannot be discriminated against for doing so, although fines for discrimination are too small to act as a deterrent. Unions face restrictions on assembly similar to those of civic groups, and public employees do not have the right to strike. Many unions report harassment; Turkey's largest union, representing teachers, has faced difficult legal battles threatening closure and police interference in its peaceful demonstrations due to its support for mother-tongue (i.e. Kurdish) education.31 While the constitution protects citizens from being forced to join an organization (Article 33), certain fields have professional organizations in which membership is compulsory.


  • Visits to monitor and ensure respect for human rights in police stations and gendarmeries should be countrywide and independent and include members of respected human rights organizations; findings should be reported to the government and the public.
  • All human rights violations must be promptly and thoroughly investigated and prosecuted by civilians, and officials under investigation should be suspended from duty.
  • The principle of multiculturalism needs to be embraced, perhaps through constitutional amendment, to ensure that all religious, ethnic, and cultural groups are treated equally.
  • Female education rates need to be improved, particularly in the southeast, to increase women's possibilities for labor market and political participation.

Rule of Law – 3.97

Independent judiciary: 3.60
Primacy of rule of law in civil and criminal matters: 3.83
Accountability of security forces and military to civilian authorities: 3.75
Protection of property rights: 4.33
Equal treatment under the law: 4.33

Two opposing forces operate in Turkey's judicial system: the enlightened reforms and their supporters, who promote the rule of law and increased civil liberties, versus more restrictive legal interpretations by those in the system, who see the reforms as a threat to the fundamental nature of the Turkish Republic. The recent reforms seriously curbed the role of the military in the justice system, and fundamentally revised the penal code. However, pre-reform ideas about defending national integrity, governmental institutions, and Turkish identity continue to persist among judges, prosecutors, and the officials of the Ministry of Justice. It is not yet certain which side will prove stronger over the long term.

According to the constitution (Article 15), everyone has a right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Recent reforms give all detainees the right to see a lawyer immediately, free of charge; enjoyment of this right has improved, including through a considerable increase in free legal aid.33 In order to improve implementation of new reforms, judges and prosecutors have received training in human rights principles and the new penal code. However, access to counsel is sometimes delayed, compromised by police supervision, or not granted throughout an interrogation. Perhaps most worryingly, a request for legal counsel sometimes sparks ill-treatment.34 Trials can drag on excessively.

The Turkish constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but in fact the executive sometimes interferes in the court system.35 Through its links to the High Council of Judges and public prosecutors, the executive can influence judicial training, appointment, promotion, and financing, as well as bias placement of judges and prosecutors in sensitive trials. A 2005 law authorizing the justice ministry to be more involved in judicial appointments caused vocal protests from the judicial sector as well as opposition members. Training of judges is inadequate, and because there is no proper review of cases, many of those that end up in the courts result in acquittal due to lack of merit. Public prosecutors in Turkey have a status very close to that of judges, both functionally and symbolically, thus placing the defense in an inferior position. Increasing numbers of cases have been reported of judges and prosecutors taking bribes to affect decisions.36

A gunman shot five judges, killing one, in a courtroom in May 2006. The court was known for its strict secular principles, and the attacker allegedly said his motive was to protest the judges' ruling in favor of the headscarf ban.37

The constitution grants immunity to all legislators and cabinet ministers, and the AKP has reneged on a preelection promise to end immunity. Furthermore, permission is required from the superiors of public officials (or the National Assembly, in the case of ministers) to open investigations against them. Some officials have been tried after leaving office, but often the statute of limitations has expired before a case can legally be brought against them.

In September 2004, the National Assembly approved the first major overhaul of the penal code since it was written 78 years earlier. The fundamental changes in the new code include explicit guidelines on what constitutes a crime, accompanied by a statement that no other acts are punishable, and institutionalization of the concept that punishment should be in proportion to the crime committed. The revisions fill many of the gaps in the system. There are accusations, however, that residual ambiguities still allow judges to interpret some laws at will, despite dozens of circulars sent to prosecutors for clarification. More generally, unequal treatment under the law remains a problem, as discrimination against the poor in the administration of justice is common.

A 2006 anti-terror law, which makes many criminal offenses punishable more harshly if they are committed in support of terrorism, has provoked fears that some of the advances will be reversed, given the broad definition of terrorism used. Despite protests by human rights and other groups, the government considered the bill necessary to address the rising violence in the southeast. Among other things, access to a lawyer can be denied for 24 hours under the new law.

State security courts, which had been accused of human rights abuses and an absence of due process, were abolished in 2004. Cases against the integrity of the state, which were formerly under their jurisdiction, have been passed to new heavy penal courts. The latter have been criticized, however, as not representing an improvement; they may even use the same judges and prosecutors formerly accused of abuses, and there is no impartial reexamination of evidence in retrials.38

The military holds a special place in the Turkish republic. Since Turkey's first military coup, in 1960, it has acted as the guarantor of Turkey's secularism, territorial integrity, and government functioning. While it has never stayed in power long, it used the first coup, and subsequent ones in 1971 and 1980, to increase its autonomy and enhance its role during civilian rule. Turkish generals have expressed opinions on everything from judicial decisions to draft bills in the National Assembly to EU membership, and those opinions have seldom been ignored altogether. After the Welfare Party came to dominate the ruling coalition in 1996, leading to increased fundamentalism, the military forced its removal.

The EU continues to criticize Turkey for lack of civilian control of the military. Turkey's EU-inspired reforms have confined the once-powerful National Security Council (NSC) to an advisory role with a civilian at its head, removed military members from political bodies such as the higher education council and RTUK, and increased transparency and parliamentary oversight of military expenditures. Moreover, the reforms have been accompanied by increased space for open public critique of the military. However, the military is still not entirely subservient to the civilian ministry of defense, and it maintains autonomy in its strategic decision making. High-ranking military officers continue to voice opinions on domestic and foreign policy issues; in October 2006 the chief of staff accused the government of encouraging Islamic fundamentalism. Meanwhile, public trust in the military is strong, and military schools are among the best in the country, which contribute to the continued power and prestige of this institution.

Property rights are generally respected in Turkey, although in some areas societal biases impede women from owning property. The most significant property rights problem in Turkey continues to relate to the hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes in the southeast by government forces in the 1990s.39 The government has initiated a project to compensate these people and return them to their villages. Official and unofficial sources agree that more than 110,000 have returned so far,40 and 2006 saw the first victims to receive financial compensation under a 2004 law sparked by an ECHR decision. However, critics claim the commission dealing with claims is biased, depriving victims of fair compensation, and village guards have allegedly used intimidation and violence to prevent others from returning to their homes.41 The ECHR ruled in January 2006 that the compensation law provides adequate redress, but Human Rights Watch has argued that implementation has subsequently deteriorated.42


  • Governmental immunity must end so that official wrongdoing can be prosecuted properly.
  • Executive influence over judges and public prosecutors must be eliminated in structure and in practice, beginning with an end to executive authority over judicial appointments and other judicial matters.
  • The government must abolish the village guard system, beginning with immediate disarmament and followed by the provision of alternative employment for current guards, to ease the return of displaced people and build trust between the government and the people in the southeast.
  • The military should be clearly separated from civilian issues. It should not make public statements on or otherwise be involved in issues beyond military, defense, and security matters, and any involvement it attempts should be resisted by the civilian government.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 3.64

Environment to protect against corruption: 3.20
Laws and ethical standards between private and public sectors: 4.00
Enforcement of anticorruption laws: 3.50
Governmental transparency: 3.86

Turkey continues to struggle with substantial corruption in government and in daily life. The AKP rose to power, despite (or perhaps because of) being relatively unknown, in part due to the corruption and economic mismanagement of previous governments. Turkey has signed a series of international corruption conventions; the UN Convention against Corruption entered into force in June 2006. However, the AKP's commitment to fighting corruption has been cast in doubt by lack of follow-through. Perhaps even more so than with other reforms, the anticorruption framework has not translated into individuals changing their behavior, although with time it may have more significant effects.

Upon taking office the AKP instituted an urgent action plan that included anticorruption measures. However, although it formed a ministerial committee closely connected to the government, it never established a single, independent anticorruption committee, nor has the draft anticorruption law been passed. Bureaucracy pervades the system. The government made efforts to streamline regulations after the 2001 financial crisis, including a considerable privatization program to reduce the number of state-owned enterprises; several state-owned companies were sold in 2005-06. Nevertheless, businesses continue to face more complexity than in other OECD countries;43 business leaders surveyed by the World Economic Forum in 2006 listed "inefficient government bureaucracy" as the most problematic factor for doing business in Turkey.44 Many government officials have business interests that conflict with their public service duties.45 All must file asset-disclosure forms, but these forms are inaccessible to the public and are not generally used for investigative purposes. Nevertheless, Erdogan declared his assets quite publicly in February 2006. The government adopted an ethics code for the public sector in April 2005 and proposed a political ethics law in January 2007.

Conflicts of interest in the private sector are regulated by laws in each sector, not by a single piece of legislation, although draft revisions to the commercial code would extend audit and governance standards to all companies. The 2001 financial crisis sparked the disclosure of the huge conflicts of interest that existed in the financial sector. Conversely, corruption in the education sector is not a serious problem.

The new penal code punishes corruption-related crimes more severely, and the statute of limitations was extended. However, many of those cases that make it to court result in acquittal or light sentences.46 Civil society has criticized the government for not investigating and prosecuting corruption effectively, a charge that the government denies.47 All legislators and ministers have immunity from prosecution (see "Rule of Law"), despite significant allegations of legislative corruption. Charges that former prime minister Mesut Yilmaz and former economy minister Gunes Taner interfered in the privatization of Turkbank were withdrawn in June 2006 after a judge ruled the charges could not be verified.

The media report widely on such cases and have also revealed lower-level corruption. Reporting is hampered, however, as journalists risk imprisonment for investigations of those still in office as well as censorship by the business interests that own their outlets.48 Although public officials have a legal obligation to report offenses, whistleblowers do not have significant protection.49

A 2006 law establishing an ombudsman linked to the National Assembly was passed over a presidential veto. A court of accounts conducts annual audits of revenues and expenditures of public bodies on behalf of the National Assembly, but overlapping responsibilities for inspection and investigation mean that irregularities are not consistently investigated.50 Tax auditing currently is performed by several different units of the ministry of finance at the national and local level and is largely ineffective; corruption in the tax system is a problem.51 A new law ensuring budget transparency went into effect in 2004-05, although it has not been fully implemented.52 In terms of foreign aid, a National Authorizing Officer audits EU funds, but effective anti-fraud provisions and implementing legislation for financial management and control are lacking.53

The government launched a reform of the public procurement system in the aftermath of the financial crisis to ensure transparency and accountability, culminating in a new law adopted in 2002. However, the AKP overturned certain provisions, leaving room for corruption once again. An investigation launched into tender fraud in public agencies in fall 2006 led to the arrests of many suspects. A law on freedom of information went into effect in April 2004. While this greatly increased public distribution of information, the law is not consistently followed, and vague provisions exempting state and trade secrets have led to allegedly overly conservative interpretations.54


  • A specialized agency should be empowered to investigate corruption and to work with law enforcement on preventive measures, thus coordinating the anticorruption effort. The government must repeal government officials' immunity and prosecute governmental corruption.
  • A legal mechanism should be passed to prevent and punish conflicts of interest among government officials.
  • Public awareness of the impact of corruption must be increased, including through the education system to target citizens at an early age.
  • Access to information should be improved through clear guidelines on implementation of the law and strengthened independence for the board that reviews decisions under the law.


Sarah Repucci is a senior research coordinator at Transparency International in Berlin. She is a governance and democracy specialist and an analyst of Turkish politics.


1 Yilmaz Esmer, "Turkey," Global Integrity Report (Washington, DC: Center for Public Integrity, 10 September 2004),; "Response of Toplumsal Saydamlik Hareketi Dernegi to EC's Questions about Corruption and Transparency in Turkey" (Istanbul: Toplumsal Saydamlik Hareketi Dernegi [TSHD-TI Turkey], 5 July 2004), [in Turkish]; "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (Brussels: European Commission [EC], 8 November 2006

2 Esmer, "Turkey."

3 I_il Sariyüce and Kristen Stevens, "Turkish human rights spring forth," Turkish Daily News, 13 December 2006.

4 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

5 "Human Rights Defenders in Turkey" (Vienna: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 3 April 2006).

6 See "Freedom of Expression in the New Turkish Penal Code" (Ankara: Human Rights Agenda Association, 2006).

7 "Authorities harass critical television station, probe finances of staff and programme guests" (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 27 February 2007).

8 "Turkey: Author Ipek Calislar acquitted in Turkey; Trials against others continue" (London: International PEN, 21 December 2006).

9 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

10 Esmer, "Turkey"; author interview, 15 November 2006.

11 "Turkey: First Steps Toward Independent Monitoring of Police Stations and Gendarmeries" (Brussels: Human Rights Watch [HRW], Briefing Paper, 6 March 2006).

12 "Report to the Turkish Government on the Visit to Turkey Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 7 to 14 December 2005" (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 6 September 2006).

13 "Report to the Turkish Government on the Visit to Turkey Carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) from 7 to 14 December 2005" (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 6 September 2006) [I don't know what "abbreviated form" is so I am leaving the whole thing]; "Turkey: Abdulkadir Bartan" (London: Amnesty International [AI], AI Index EUR 44/020/2005, 25 May 2005).

14 "Turkey: Insufficient and Inadequate: Judicial Remedies against Torturers and Killers" (AI, Public Statement, AI index EUR 44/037/2004, 16 November 2004); "Turkey: Protecting the Torturers? Grave concerns at trial proceedings in Iskenderun" (AI, Press Release, AI Index EUR 44/015/2005, 21 April 2005); "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (Brussels: European Commission [EC], 8 November 2006) [again, don't know what abbreviated cite should be].

15 "Report to the Turkish Government ... by the CPT" (Council of Europe).

16 "Turkey: Recent human rights violations must be investigated" (AI, Public Statement, EUR 44/005/2006, 12 April 2006).

17 "Turkey: No impunity for State Officials Who Violate Human Rights" (AI, EUR 44/006/2006, May 2006).

18 "Parliament Leaves Women Unprotected," Turkish Daily News, 13 January 2007.

19 "Turkey: Women Confronting Family Violence" (New York: AI, Stop Violence against Women series, June 2004).

20 "Haydi K1zlar Okula! [Off to School, Girls!] – the Girls' Education Campaign in Turkey" (New York: UNICEF,[no date]),; "Gender Gap Index 2006" (London: World Economic Forum, 2006).

21 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

22 See Filiz Kardam, The Dynamics of Honor Killings in Turkey: Prospects for Action (Ankara: UNDP and UNPF, November 2005),….

23 Trafficking in Persons Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept of State, June 2006); "687 people tried for human trafficking last year," Turkish Daily News, 10 August 2006.

24 Levent Korkut, "Country Report: Turkey," Report on Measures to Combat Discrimination in the 13 Candidate Countries (Brussels: Migration Policy Group, May 2003).

25 Senem Aydin and E. Fuat Keyman, "European Integration and the Transformation of Turkish Democracy" (Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies, EU-Turkey Working Papers No 2, August 2004).

26 "Third Report on Turkey" (Strasbourg: European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, 15 February 2005).

27 Aydin and Keyman, "European Integration ..."

28 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

29 "Behind Closed Doors: Human Rights Abuses in the Psychiatric Facilities, Orphanages and Rehabilitation Centers of Turkey" (Washington, D.C.: Mental Disability Rights International, 28 September 2005).

30 "Human Rights in the OSCE Region: Europe, Central Asia and North America: Report 2006" (Vienna: International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, 8 June 2006).

31 "Turkey: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights" (Brussels: International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 2006).

32 For more details see for example, "Improving Educational Opportunities for Girls: Lessons from the Past Decade" (Ankara: Unicef Turkey, 2003).

33 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

34 "Turkey: First Steps ..." (HRW).

35 See, for example, "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (Brussels: European Commission [EC], 8 November 2006).

36 "Judiciary in Turkey: Rooting out Corruption," in Global Corruption Report (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

37 "Prime Council of State attack suspect comes clean," Turkish Daily News, 12 August 2006.

38 "Turkey: Unfair trials – failed justice under new courts" (AI, press release 44/014/2006, 6 September 2006).

39 While the government places the number at about 370,000, a respected study by Hacettepe University put the number between 950,000 and 1.2 million. "Turkey migration and internally displaced population survey" (Ankara: Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, press release, 6 December 2006); see also, "Unjust, Restrictive, and Inconsistent: The Impact of Turkey's Compensation Law with Respect to Internally Displaced People" (HRW, December 2006).

40 "Gov't takes step to combat sad legacy of PKK conflict: internally displaced persons," Turkish Daily News, 1 October 2006.

41 "Third Report on Turkey" (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance); "Unjust, Restrictive, and Inconsistent ..." (HRW).

42 "Unjust, Restrictive, and Inconsistent: ..." (HRW).

43 "Economic Survey of Turkey, 2006" (Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], Policy Brief, October 2006).

44 Augusto Lopez-Claros, ed., The Global Competitiveness Report 2006-2007 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2006).

45 "Response ..." (TSHD-TI Turkey), [in Turkish, translation provided to author].

46 Ibid.

47 "Joint First and Second Evaluation Round: Evaluation Report on Turkey" (Strasbourg: Group of States against Corruption, 10 March 2006).

48 "Response ..." (TSHD-TI),; author interview, 15 November 2006.

49 "Joint First ..." (Group of States against Corruption).

50 Ibid.

51 "Global Corruption Barometer 2006" (Berlin: Transparency International, 7 December 2006); James H. Anderson and Cheryl W. Gray, "Anticorruption in Transition: Who is Succeeding and Why" (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2006).

52 "Economic Survey of Turkey, 2006" (OECD).

53 "Turkey: 2006 Progress Report" (EC).

54 Anderson and Gray, "Anticorruption in Transition ..." (World Bank); David Banisar, "Freedom of Information around the World 2006" (Washington, DC:, July 2006); "Joint First ..." (Group of States against Corruption).

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