x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Death of a girl exposes Turkey's failures

A report assessing Ankara's progress as a candidate for membership of the EU says the military exert 'undue influence'.

ISTANBUL // All seemed normal when Ceylan Onkol, a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Turkey's Kurdish region, led her family's sheep out of her village one morning last month to let them graze. But then villagers heard an explosion. They rushed to the meadow where Ceylan had been sitting and saw that a grenade had torn the girl's body apart.

Ceylan's family told Turkish media they thought the grenade had come from a military base close by, but the state prosecutor from the nearest town refused to visit the scene to investigate the death, citing security concerns. Later, authorities said Ceylan had probably triggered the explosion herself while playing with unexploded ordnance of undetermined origin, a statement rejected by Muharrem Erbey, a lawyer for Ceylan's family. "In other cases like that, the hands of the victims were torn apart, so why were Ceylan's hands still intact?" he said.

According to media reports, one assumption of prosecutors is that Ceylan may have been killed "in the course of the military's fight against terrorism", an allusion to Kurdish rebels active in the area. If that assumption proves correct, the soldiers responsible can expect very light sentences, according to the reports. In Ankara, Turkey's general staff said no grenade had been fired in the region on the day Ceylan died. Media reports linking the military to the death were part of a propaganda campaign aimed at undermining the army, a military spokesman said. More than two weeks after the explosion, it is unclear if anyone will be charged.

A perception that Turkey's civilian authorities are unwilling or unable to shed light on incidents like Ceylan's fate and to punish those responsible is one of the most important hurdles on Turkey's path to join the European Union. In a major report on Turkey's progress as a candidate country published yesterday, the European Commission (EC) said the military still enjoyed too much power and privileges and that human rights violations were still a cause for concern.

"The armed forces have continued to exercise undue political influence via formal and informal mechanisms," the report said. The commission also cited statements by the military concerning a trial against a suspected gang including serving and former military officers that prosecutors say planned a coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister. With the statements about the so-called Ergenekon trial, the military was "putting the judiciary under pressure", the report said.

It is extremely rare for military personnel in Turkey to stand trial in a civilian court. This year, Mr Erdogan's government pushed a law through parliament that gives civilian courts more oversight of the military, but the opposition in Ankara has asked the constitutional court to cancel the law. In the report, the EC applauded the Turkish government's stated intention to end the long-running Kurdish conflict by democratic means and the recent rapprochement with neighbouring Armenia. But the report also noted that Turkey still had not recognised Cyprus, an EU member since 2004.

The report stated that Turkey had committed itself to bring its human rights policy up to a European level, but still had some way to go. As an example, it cited the findings of a parliamentary committee that said none of the 35 lawsuits filed against 431 police officers in Istanbul had led to a conviction. Critics of the EU said Brussels was trying to break up the Turkish nation-state by putting the spotlight on laws designed to protect the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey's founder and on the laws protecting the military, which the report said limited free speech. "You cannot stick out your tongue at the precious values of our nation in the name of freedom of speech," the Association for Ataturk Ideas, a nationalist group opposed to the EU, said.

Even before the report was published, the government in Ankara vowed to correct any deficits. "This document shows the points where we made headway and where we did not," said Egemen Bagis, the EU affairs minister and Turkey's top negotiator in membership talks with Brussels. "If everything was a hundred per cent in Turkey, we would be EU members by now." tseibert@thenational.ae