Eren Keskin may not look like a battle-hardened fighter, with her towering beehive hairdo and Cleopatra eyeliner. But the walls of her dingy legal office in downtown Istanbul are filled with mementos from 20 years of bitter courtroom battles with the Turkish state--some won, most lost, both as attorney and as defendant. There's a photo of a lawyer beaten to death by police in 1994. There's an award from a German human-rights group for championing the cause of Kurdish women. But the walls are for history. The future is on her desk, the paperwork of the battles yet to be fought. In pride of place, a sheaf of fresh court summonses charging Keskin with treasonably insulting the state. "Free speech?" she says with a sigh. "Europe may think Turkey has changed. I haven't seen it much in practice."
Cases like these, pitting crusading lawyers like Keskin against Turkey's established order, are the test of how far the recent overhaul of Turkey's old, repressive legal system really goes. In September Turkey's Parliament voted in a liberalized penal code, with more than 450 new articles designed to guarantee freedom of expression, eliminate police torture and bolster the rights of minorities. The result was applause from the European Commission, which recommended that the European Union start accession talks with Ankara. At home, the reception has been more reserved. "The old laws were designed to protect the state against its citizens," says one civil-liberties lawyer in Istanbul, Gulseren Yoleri. "The new laws give the impression of protecting the citizens against the state."
Note his use of the term impression. So far, the reality is proving rather different. Lawyers and defendants alike complain that neither judges nor prosecutors understand the letter--or, more importantly, the spirit--of the new laws. Mehmet P., 26, sits in the foyer of Istanbul's Heavy Penalties Court awaiting a hearing for being a member of an illegal leftist organization. "I complained to the prosecutor that what I had done was not a crime anymore," he says. "He said, 'Does it matter what article we use if you are guilty?' "
Thousands of people are still in jail for crimes that no longer exist. One of them is Hakan Albayrak, a journalist imprisoned last year for writing a poem critical of Turkey's founding father, Kemal Ataturk. Another is Fatih Colak, a radio-show host jailed earlier this year for criticizing the state's ban on Islamic headscarves in school. Then there are the 70 or so antiwar protesters arrested during the June NATO summit and not yet brought to trial. Turkey may be showing a modern face to the EU, says Keskin, but many people are still being convicted for crimes of conscience--which under the European-inspired reforms is no longer supposed to happen. "The new laws are just the old ones," she explains, "rephrased and renumbered."
Just last week, Keskin herself received a court summons on charges of "insulting the Turkish state" under the "reformed" and supposedly defunct Article 312 of the country's criminal code. Her alleged crime: giving a speech in Cologne in 2002 detailing the plight of 206 mostly Kurdish women claiming to have been sexually abused by Turkish soldiers. "Turkey claims to Europe that opinion is no longer a crime," says Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch in London. "That simply isn't true."
There are some promising signs of change. Courts have released more than 400 prisoners held under the former laws. The Supreme Court of Administration has also started pumping out liberal rulings, overturning the expulsion of university students for demanding Kurdish-language lessons (now a legal right) and upholding the right of parents to give their children Kurdish names. Scrutiny from Europe is also helping to speed change. EU observers are following several cases as tests of the new order, including one in which Kurdish refugees are suing the state for evicting them from their homes in the 1990s. All this leaves judges less leeway to cleave to old ways. "There's a lot of inertia in the system," says Selattin Demirtas, a human-rights lawyer in the southeastern city of Mardin. "Change is going to be slow unless Brussels keeps up the pressure."
Ultimately, Turkey has more to lose than face if it fails to make its paper reforms a reality. Corrupt and incompetent courts are cited as a major reason for chronically low foreign investment, and Turkey's old political class still remains untouchable, as witnessed by a series of recent court decisions exonerating rich and well-connected villains from the reach of the law. Turkey's courts have been given a chance to prove themselves, before Europe and their own people. They have yet to pass the test.