Gul says Turkey must do more to boost free speech

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STRASBOURG, France, Oct 3 (Reuters) Turkish President Abdullah Gul defended his country's human rights record today in a major European forum, but said much remained to be done, including tackling a law used to curb free speech.

The European Union, which Ankara hopes to join, has urged Turkey to scrap article 301 of its penal code, which makes it a crime to insult Turkish national identity or state institutions.

''Nobody is in prison in Turkey today for expressing their ideas... but there are many more things still to do,'' Gul told the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe in the French city of Strasbourg.

Gul later told reporters he wanted to see article 301 amended, noting it had caused much damage to Turkey's image as it negotiates for EU membership.

Nationalist prosecutors in Turkey have used article 301 against dozens of writers, journalists and scholars, including Nobel Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, although cases hardly ever end in convictions.

''Even though nobody has been jailed under this article, I would like to see it changed. (Turkey's) parliament is now open and I predict some regulations could be made in connection with this issue,'' Gul said.

In Turkey, the government, not the president, makes policy but Gul retains influence in the ruling centre-right AK Party where he served as foreign minister until parliament elected him head of state in August.

So far, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's centre-right government has resisted EU pressure to scrap or amend article 301, saying it will proceed with reforms at its own pace.

INTOLERANCE Human rights campaigners say the article seriously discourages freedom of expression and feeds a climate of intolerance exploited by ultra-nationalists.

One of the few writers to have been convicted under the article was Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink. He was shot dead in Istanbul by a young ultra-nationalist in January because of his views on the Ottoman Turkish massacres of Armenians in 1915.

Quizzed by European parliamentarians, Gul defended Turkey's treatment of its large Kurdish ethnic minority, saying Kurds had achieved more freedoms in the past few years.

''We see cultural differences as an asset... but they cannot justify separation,'' he said, referring indirectly to Kurdish rebels fighting Ankara's rule in a conflict that has cost more than 30,000 lives since 1984.

Gul said a new constitution being prepared by the government would further bolster individual rights and freedoms in Turkey.

But he dismissed suggestions that the government, which has Islamist roots, would use the new charter to undermine Turkey's secular system of government.

''Religion will continue to be kept out of state affairs...

Nobody should worry about Turkey's direction,'' said Gul, whose own Islamist past and wife's Muslim headscarf triggered concerns among Turkey's secular elite, including the army.

''Turkey will remain a democratic, secular, law-based social state under its new constitution,'' Gul told the lawmakers.

The Council of Europe, which has 47 member states, aims to promote democracy and human rights across the continent.

REUTERS SKB HS1851

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