Reuters International

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Turkey faced heavy European criticism of its human rights record on Thursday that could further strain relations at a time when the EU needs Ankara's help in stemming record numbers of refugees and migrants.

The European Parliament approved its annual progress report on Turkey, a candidate for European Union membership, that lambasts the country's record on human rights and media freedoms during 2015. Ankara swiftly rejected the report.

"(Lawmakers) urge Turkey to act against intimidation of journalists in all its forms, condemn its violent and illegal take-over of several newspapers ... and highlight its serious backsliding on freedom of speech," the parliament said.

Turkish authorities have seized or shut down several newspapers and taken broadcasters off the air in recent months, while a German TV comedian is facing a Turkish legal complaint for insulting President Tayyip Erdogan.

Nevertheless, international rights groups have accused Brussels of turning a blind eye to such developments because it needs Erdogan's cooperation in curbing the flow of migrants and refugees passing from the Middle East via Turkey into the EU.

Under a deal agreed in March, Turkey will take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally, including Syrians, in return for more funds, moves to scrap the visa requirement for Turks visiting Europe and an acceleration of Ankara's long-stalled EU accession talks.

The EU issues annual reports about the state of countries seeking to join the bloc. Turkey's record on press freedom has raised such concerns among some EU politicians that they question whether it is a suitable candidate for membership.

"The rule of law, press freedom and freedom of expression are core values of the European family," said German Liberal lawmaker Alexander Lambsdorff.

"Re-assessing the entire accession process ... and the refusal to link the negotiation process with the refugee crisis, are among the most important messages to the Turkish government in this report," he said.

The European Parliament does not control the bloc's foreign and enlargement policy and the significance of the report is primarily symbolic.

CRITICISM REJECTED

Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkir, speaking in Vienna, said his government considered the report "null and void" and would return it to the European Parliament.

Bozkir made clear Ankara was particularly angry about a reference in the report to the mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey in 1915 as "genocide". Turkey accepts that many Armenians were killed at that time but denies that hundreds of thousands perished or that they constituted a genocide.

"We are proud of having freedom of speech and press freedom in Turkey," Bozkir also told reporters.

Also on Thursday the human rights commissioner of the Council of Europe - a rights and democracy watchdog to which Ankara belongs and which is separate from the EU - expressed concerns over the situation in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, where security forces are battling Kurdish militants.

"Respect for human rights has deteriorated at an alarming speed in recent months in the context of Turkey's fight against terrorism," Nils Muiznieks told reporters in Ankara after visiting Diyarbakir, the biggest city in southeast Turkey.

Muiznieks also said he had "serious doubts" about the legality of round-the-clock curfews imposed in several areas of the southeast as part of efforts to crush the militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Shadia Nasralla in Vienna; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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