Free speech on trial in Turkey

The case of writer Orhan Pamuk is being watched as a test of political reforms.

Like one of his own characters, trapped between liberal yearnings and the reality of an unforgiving state, Turkey's most celebrated novelist, Orhan Pamuk, is slated to appear in court Friday to face charges of "insulting Turkish identity."

The high-profile free speech trial pits the aims of European-driven reform in Turkey - which began EU membership talks last October - against a fiercely nationalistic tradition that permits little challenge. Mr. Pamuk's trial is one of more than 65 other free speech cases now under way in Turkey, which are being closely watched by European observers, as a test of the recent reforms.

"This is a tug of war in Turkey now, between those who favor democratic and EU values, [against] those who are afraid of such change - the hard-core nationalists who are willing to do anything to stop that trend," says Haluk Sahin, a journalism professor at Bilgi University and columnist for Radikal newspaper, who is also facing trial in February under the same statute.

"[Nationalists] have decided that the legal system is the soft underbelly," says Mr. Sahin. "And by using legal instruments and their ties [to the judiciary], they can harm Turkey's prospects in that big march toward the European goal."

Pamuk is charged over remarks made to a Swiss newspaper last February, that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Pamuk did not use the word "genocide," which is officially rejected here in favor of an "internecine fighting" formulation to explain the Armenian deaths 90 years ago. Western historians, however, often consider the events in Anatolia during the last years of the Ottoman Empire to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey has also long had difficulty accepting that Kurds have a separate ethnic identity, with their own language and customs, beyond a designation as "Mountain Turks." Battle against separatist Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s left an estimated 30,000 Kurds dead.

Even discussing such issues has been taboo in Turkey, though freedom of speech protection is required to join the EU club. Extremists rallied against Pamuk; a provincial governor ordered his books burned.

"Various newspapers launched hate campaigns against me, with some right-wing (but not necessarily Islamist) columnists going as far as to say that I should be 'silenced' for good," Pamuk writes in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine. "What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats?" he asks.

Pamuk is the author of prize-winning bestsellers, including "Snow," "My Name is Red," and "The White Castle." He has gained notoriety for exploring controversial views of his culture in a memoir-style of fiction, making him something of a Turkish Salman Rushdie.

Pamuk faces three years in prison if convicted, though often such cases end in payment of fines.

Still, the number of cases is mounting, bringing opprobrium from the US and Europe - which has expressed "serious concern" and tasked an envoy with following the trial - as well as from human rights organizations.

"The trial of Orhan Pamuk will show the world which direction Turkish justice is heading," Holly Cartner, the Europe and Central Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The group notes recent training of some Turkish judges and prosecutors in the law of the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled that free expression "includes the right to criticize public institutions in very strong terms."

But that may not be the case under the current law, passed last year and designed to be in accord with EU requirements. Most of the free speech cases involve Articles 288 and 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

Commenting on the case earlier this week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan complained that widespread support for Pamuk from "international pressure groups" was putting undue pressure on the judiciary.

Erdogan also explained how much things have changed in Turkey since he was imprisoned for reading an Islamic poem in public, breaking Turkey's strictly secular law.

"At the time when I went to prison, there was no one who came to talk to me about respect for the rule of law or human rights ... so I find this somewhat of a double standard," Erdogan told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Critics have noted the limited positive change, and want the apparent reversal stopped.

"It is so self-defeating," Sahin says of the effort to quell free speech. "Orhan Pamuk is not going to go to jail. Orhan Pamuk is only going to sell more books."

Behind the Pamuk trial

• The celebrated Turkish author told a Swiss newspaper in February that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it." He said security forces shared responsibility for the death of the Kurds in southeast Turkey during separatist fighting in the 1980s and 1990s.

• The case was brought for "insulting Turkish identity" under article 301 of the criminal code. Pamuk faces up to three years in jail if convicted.

• Pamuk's novels, translated into dozens of languages, include "My Name is Red," "Snow," and "The White Castle." The novels deal with the clash between past and present, East and West, secularism and Islamism.

• Pamuk won the Peace Prize of Germany's book trade association, Germany's highest literary honor, in October.

Source: Reuters

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