Turkey's first new criminal code in nearly 80 years went into effect yesterday in what Ankara hopes will be a major step towards opening accession proceedings with the European Union in October. Legal experts see the document as an improvement on its 1926 predecessor, which was heavily indebted to 19th century Italian laws. Turkish women's rights activists have expressed overall satisfaction with new articles criminalising sexual harassment, virginity tests and rape within marriage. The code also drops articles prescribing shorter sentences for so-called honour killings. Every year, scores, if not hundreds, of Turkish women are murdered by their families for transgressing traditional codes of behaviour. In line with their new policy of zero tolerance, MPs have also increased the maximum penalty for torture from eight to 12 years. But as Amnesty International points out, time limits on torture cases, though extended, still stand. Facilitated by a notoriously inefficient judicial system, the deliberate delaying of trials until they are dropped is a common tactic. The new criminal code has been dogged by controversy since last autumn, when plans to criminalise adultery were dropped amid an international outcry. In recent days, government efforts to reduce penalties for illegal religious courses have sparked a furious debate in Turkey, fiercely attached to its secular identity. The controversy has served only to mask far more serious shortcomings in articles dealing with freedom of expression. Though plans envisaging higher sentences for 'crimes' committed through the press were dropped last week, journalists still face prison sentences for reporting on anything from ongoing criminal investigations to 'insult'. Not only has a notorious article from the former code criminalising acts that 'belittle' state institutions been transferred almost verbatim into today's version, critics say, entirely new restrictions have been added. Foremost is article 305, which prescribes up to 10 years' prison for Turks or foreigners acting 'against the fundamental national interest', a vague term that could include advocating the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus or describing 1915 Armenian massacres as 'genocide'. Laws like this, says lawyer Yusuf Caglayan, 'open the door to decisions that prove not the citizen's guilt, but the impossibility of proving his innocence'.