ISTANBUL — WHEN Ismail Besikci, a Turkish sociologist who recently had three books published about the Kurds, was led into the courtroom a few weeks ago, spectators gave him a standing ovation. Mr. Besikci faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted on charges of ``separatist propaganda'' stemming from his latest writings. In them, he accuses the Turkish government of perpetuating a ``cultural genocide'' against its Kurdish population.
The government denies it discriminates against the Kurds. ``The Kurds are not a [recognized] minority in Turkey,'' says a government spokeswoman who asked not to be identified. ``The Kurds are Turkish nationals.... They sit in parliament and are not in any way differentiated from others. If you look at the Turkish Constitution, every citizen has the same rights.''
Besikci's trial has become a focal point for opposition to Turkey's official policies banning the Kurdish language and all forms of Kurdish cultural expression. His monthly courtroom appearances have been met by jam-packed crowds.
``In Turkey, the most important official ideology is the anti-Kurdish one, and I'm being convicted for criticizing this and for criticizing Turkish writers who remain silent on this issue,'' Besikci said during his July 11 hearing.
Besikci is one of the few people in Turkey who dare to speak out against Turkey's Kurdish policies. As a result, he has spent 11 of the last 20 years in prison. Over the years, numerous people have offered to spirit him out of the country, but he has always refused, insisting he must remain in Turkey to continue his work as a sociologist.
About 20 percent of Turkey's 55 million people are Kurds. Of these, 6 million live in the economically depressed southeast, which has been battered by a six-year war waged by Kurdish separatists.
Over the past year, newspapers here had been giving increased coverage of the fighting in the southeast. They also published articles questioning the official policy that the Kurds are not a separate national group.
But all this stopped following a government decree issued April 9 that gave the regional governor in charge of the 11 southeastern provinces the right to censor the press anywhere in Turkey if it publishes articles that ``wrongly represent incidents in [this] region, disturb readers with distorted news stories or commentaries, [or] cause anxiety among people in the region.''
In addition, penalties were increased for publications that insult the president, the government, state ministers, and judges.
Although the Constitutional Court is studying the decree - which was never voted on by the Grand National Assembly, Turkey's one-house parliament - President Turgut Ozal has insisted the decree cannot be constitutionally challenged.
``The decrees are there to protect our national integrity,'' the president told a press conference last month.
As a result of the press decree, local coverage of events in the southeast has completely ended, save for releases issued by the regional governor's office. Two political magazines in Istanbul were permanently closed for their coverage of Kurdish issues.
But as much as the government would like to stifle all discussion about the Kurds, Turkish lawyers involved in the case say, the issue has spread far beyond the borders of the southeast, as Besikci's case shows.
His books, each of which appeared for one day before being banned, sold about 500 copies apiece - a very respectable number in Turkey, where the average print run of a book last year was 4,000 copies.
``Ten years ago, there was only one Besikci, but now there are many, although none is as brave as he,'' says Serhat Bucak, one of 117 lawyers representing Besikci. Mr. Bucak is a Kurd who currently faces his own trial on charges of ``separatist propaganda'' for his work defending Besikci.
``But now, people are beginning to discuss the Kurds,'' Bucak assert. ``They admit there is a problem and now understand that until this problem is solved there will be no democracy in Turkey.''