ANKARA (Associated Press/Reuters)–Turkey has a long way to go before it can bring its human rights standards to acceptable international levels–a top US official said Friday.
Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck also said much remains to be done if the Turkish government expects to make human rights its highest priority.
Shattuck said that if Turkey aspires to become a fully democratic country–it needs to prohibit and punish the use of torture–reform the criminal justice system–and allow more freedom of expression.
"We’re encouraging the government to bring about these changes," Shattuck said the fourth day of a five-day fact-finding tour.
Torture remains widespread despite pledges by successive governmen’s to curb it. Police officers on trial for torture often get away with small fines.
"There is much to be done to respond to the concerns I have heard on my trip," he said.
Shattuck was referring to concerns and grievances expressed by Turkish human rights groups and people he met during a series of trips that took him from Istanbul to the war-torn southeast.
Most claims that Turkey is violating human rights stem from the southeast–where the military has been waging a 14-year-old war against autonomy-seeking Kurdish insurgents.
"We understand that this government is attempting to address the economic problems the southeast faces," Shattuck said.
But he added it was essential that Turkey also take "social and political measures" in a region where the Kurdish language is banned in education and broadcasting.
One day before Shattuck visited the area–seven leaders of the Kurdish HADEP parties were arrested. HADEP is the latest incarnation of a number of Kurdish parties which have been shut down and its leaders imprisoned on charges of separatism.
On Saturday–Shattuck met with Kurdish member of parliament nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize–Turkey’s most prominent political prisoner Leyla Zana–who urged the US to cancel a planned $3 billion sale of helicopters to Turkey because of Ankara’s human rights record.
"The United States should once again review its policy on the attack helicopters–which I believe should not be given," Zana said in a letter she gave to Shattuck.
Zana and three other deputies were imprisoned for 15 years in 1994 on charges of links to Kurdish rebels–largely on the basis of speeches they made. Their case is among the most prominent human rights issues in Turkey–stalled in its bid to join the European Union partly because of is rights record.
Washington gave the green light in December to US firms Bell Helicopter Textron and Boeing-McDonnell Douglas to supply AH-1 Cobras and AH-64 Apaches respectively to Turkey.
Members of Congress had expressed concerns about arms sales to Turkey because of its rights record.
Zana–whose letter was released by the Human Rights Association–said Turkey had made no improvemen’s on human rights.
"Systematic torture continues to be both an interrogation method and a state policy," she said.
"The obstacles in the way of freedom of expression have not been lifted."
Zana last year rejected any attempt to release her until a solution was found to Turkey’s festering Kurdish problem.