Turkey to Change Law That Sent Nobel Laureate to Jail

Turkey's government will change a law that was used to prosecute a Nobel laureate for insulting Turkish identity, the justice minister said Tuesday, bowing to EU concerns that it overly curbed free speech.

Turkey, which hopes to join the European Union, will soften the law, which makes denigrating Turkish identity, or insulting the country's institutions, a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. The European Union has said it does not fit within the bloc's standards of free speech, and has been one of the stumbling blocks to Turkish accession since talks began in 2005.

The Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk was among the highest profile Turks snared by the law, when he commented on the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century. Turkey contends the death toll has been inflated and the deaths were the result of civil unrest, not genocide.

"The amendment has been completed and will be brought to parliament soon," private NTV and CNN-Turk televisions quoted Justice Minister Mehmet Ali Sahin as saying.

The measure is likely to pass parliament, where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party has a majority.

The announcement came just hours after the EU reiterated its concerns about the law in its annual report.

"It is not acceptable that writers, journalists, academics and other intellectuals ... are prosecuted for simply expressing a critical but completely nonviolent opinion," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said when presenting the report on Turkey.

"The infamous Article 301 must be repealed or amended without delay," Rehn said.

In addition to Pamuk, numerous other writers, journalists and academics have also been prosecuted under the law.

Hrant Dink, the ethnic Armenian journalist who was the editor of the minority Agos newspaper, was shot outside his Istanbul office on Jan. 19, following his prosecution for comments he made about the killings of Armenians. His murder revived a debate about the law, and many said his prosecution made him a target for radical nationalists. Tens of thousands turned out for his funeral, but many other Turks viewed him as an irritant whose commentaries were objectionable.

Turkish leaders have said the law was damaging Turkey's image by portraying it as a country where intellectuals are jailed for speaking their opinions.

Given the sensitivity of the debate over the law, it is unlikely it will be dropped entirely, but the decision to amend it indicates it will be softened to restrict its interpretation by prosecutors.

The law was just one of the concerns the EU mentioned in its report, which noted that the pace of reforms in Turkey has slowed recently. The bloc said Turkey must normalize its relations with EU member Cyprus and honor a 2005 pact to open its ports and airports to the island republic.

Cyprus has been divided between a Greek Cypriot south and a Turkish-occupied north since 1974, when Turkey invaded after an abortive Athens-backed coup by supporters of union with Greece.

Only the Greek south has EU benefits, and Ankara has said it will not agree to any concessions on Cyprus until the EU keeps to ends the isolation of Turkish Cypriots.

The report praised Turkey's economic reforms but chided authorities for their approach to minority rights, which it said has remained "unchanged" over the past year.

In the southeast of the country, "Turkey needs to create the conditions for the predominantly Kurdish population there to enjoy full rights and freedoms," said the report, which was published as Turkey considers military moves against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. The rebels have killed more than 40 Turks in cross-border raids in the past month.