Author:Gorvett, Jon

Last month saw Turkey's leading human rights activist, Akin Birdal, shot six times while working in his central Ankara office. Left for dead by his two assailants, this veteran leader of the Turkish Human Rights Association (IHD) miraculously survived, but his attempted assassination has cast further doubts over the Turkish government's claims that the country has improved its rights record and is now ready to join the new Europe.

On the significance of the attack, leading Turkish newspaper columnist Sami Kohen pointed out. "It is not just the man himself who was a target, it's the spirit of human rights, the spirit of democracy."

Indeed, reactions to the shooting have underlined wider and more longstanding conflicts within Turkey; from the 13-year-old war in the south-east between the army and Kurdish separatists of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to alleged connections between the state, organised crime and ultra-rightist death squads.

The Birdal shooting followed the publishing by a number of newspapers of the names of journalists, rights activists and writers, alleged by a top PKK prisoner to be sympathetic to the Kurdish separatist cause.

Birdal had been among them and did not have to wait long for a reaction. Indeed, the outspoken IHD president has been a target for some time. He currently faces around 20 separate indictments from Turkish courts for his criticism of the country's rights record and the treatment of its Kurdish minority. As Birdal himself has remarked, he is himself no longer sure of the precise number.

The human rights situation in Turkey has long come in for criticism both overseas and domestically. The recent decision of the EU at Luxembourg not to give Turkey an EU accession perspective was also based in part on the country's poor rights record. However, the situation had in some respects been improving -- with reported cases of torture and extra-judicial executions declining in recent years. Nonetheless, a recent upsurge in violence has undoubtedly occurred.

Last month saw the third anniversary of the formation of Saturday Mothers, a group of mainly female relatives of Turkey's "disappeared", who gather every Saturday in silent protest in Istanbul's main pedestrian precinct. Yet, for the first time in two years, last month also saw their protest forcibly broken up by the police. As the news of the Birdal shooting spread, it also reached 14 Turkish intellectuals currently standing trial for publishing banned...

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