The German MEP, her Turkish rival and the polygamist

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The Independent Online
Claudia Roth is not afraid to ask tough questions. She posed a particularly tricky one to Tansu Ciller, Turkey's foreign minister, this week. How, Ms Roth wanted to know, could Ms Ciller style herself the champion of Turkish women, and continue to sit in cabinet alongside a minister who was a bigamist?

Ms Roth, who heads the Greens inside the European Parliament, had done her homework. She was pre-armed with the knowledge that Mehmet Altinsoy - a prominent member of Turkey's ruling Welfare Party - has two wives. Ms Ciller and Ms Roth had met at a get-together of European parliamentarians in Ankara. Such meetings have often been the source of acrimony over the last few months, as Turkey takes Europe to task for failing to make good on its promises to Ankara.

But this time, it was Ms Roth who was making the accusations of double standards - a charge which Turks often level at the European Union itself - and it did not go down well.

"We have respect for our friends," was the foreign minister's testy response, "but once they begin interfering in our internal affairs, they exceed their rights."

This is not the first time that the redoubtable Ms Roth has directed penetrating questions at Turkish politicians; her celebrity in Turkey was first assured when an uncouth minister called her a whore. Dealings with Ms Ciller, who leads Welfare's True Path Party coalition partners, have been more decorous, but rarely easy.

But this time she was right on target. By marrying twice - the first time with the sanction of the state, the second with that of an imam, or Muslim priest - Mr Altinsoy was breaking Turkish law, although his parliamentary immunity protects him from prosecution. Polygamy was banned by Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founding father, along with other Islamic practices considered too regressive for a modern republic. But if you ask Turks how many polygamists there are inside Turkey's increasingly Islamic-hued parliament, you might get a cryptic look.

For understandable reasons, the Turkish press has preferred not to "out" political polygamists, for which - like the rest of Turkey - no official figures exist. The practice is more common in the depressed southeast, which was largely left to its own devices while the rest of Turkey embarked on ambitious development. Children from additional marriages - Islam sanctions four - are usually registered as offspring of the first wife. It is here, rather than at one errant parliamentarian, that many modern-minded Turks think Ms Roth should direct her attentions.

Yesterday, sections of the media friendly to Ms Ciller rallied satisfactorily to haul Ms Roth over the coals, failing to note that other comments made by the Green leader had echoed sentiments expressed by the Turkish foreign minister herself. "Turkey is a part of Europe," said Ms Roth, "and there are allies who support her there."

Nationalist Turks would happily live without Ms Roth's words of support. As for the elusive Mr Altinsoy, a Welfare Party colleague suggested yesterday that the minister's bigamy should be treated with the discretion extended to extra-marital peccadilloes of the late Francois Mitterrand.

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