Prague, 15 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was a February interview with a Swiss newspaper that got Orhan Pamuk into trouble.
In the past century, he said, "a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands," but few dare to talk about it.
Pamuk was referring to Turkey's recent Kurdish conflict, and to an even touchier subject -- the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces. Turkey doesn't deny many Armenians died at that time. But it rejects any attempt to label the killings "genocide."
Pamuk's remarks -- though he didn't mention genocide -- prompted an outcry at home. He was charged under laws against insulting Turkish identity and is due in court tomorrow. The case has received a lot of attention, thanks to Pamuk's fame at home and abroad as the author of bestselling novels like last year's "Snow." And most of that attention has been critical.
"It's an absolutely clear-cut violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the right to freedom of expression," according to Sara Whyatt of International PEN, which campaigns for writers' freedom of expression worldwide.
"We have around 50 to 60 cases of writers or journalists currently on trial [in Turkey]," Whyatt said. "Most are accused for their comments, which have criticized the government or suggested human rights abuses by the army. Most recently, these cases have escalated. In June this year, a new Penal Code was put into place which in some cases improved the situation in Turkey but in other cases has made it more difficult for writers, specifically Article 301 under which Orhan Pamuk is tried."
Observers say there's an irony here. The Penal Code was amended because the European Union, which Turkey hopes one day to join, had demanded improvements. Yet it has led to a high-profile prosecution that drew criticism from EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn last month.
"Turkey also needs to continue to remedy the situation of those persons prosecuted or sentenced for nonviolent expressions of opinion," Rehn said. "This is an obvious reference to the case of novelist Orhan Pamuk, who is [being] prosecuted for an expression of nonviolent opinion. But it concerns freedom of expression, not least of journalists in Turkey in general, and therefore this is a very important priority for Turkey to tackle in the short term."
Pamuk wrote this week that he is embarrassed his trial is being "overdramatized." In October, he defended his earlier remarks. "I defend what I said then -- word for word. What happened is not just the pain the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire had to endure," he said. "It has reached a new dimension, which has partly to do with the proposed EU membership for Turkey. This dimension means that in Turkey the freedom of thought needs to be natural, as well as human rights. Everybody needs to be able to say what they think. I am conscious of my responsibility regarding what I said. And I still am defending what I said."
Questions about the case have dogged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his recent trips abroad. Last month, Erdogan told NATO lawmakers in Denmark of his "clear hope that the judicial decision will be in line with freedom of expression and freedom of thought."
And on 10 December in Australia, Erdogan said, "The result may very well be that [Pamuk] will be acquitted," adding, "It will be up to the judicial process to take its course." But he also criticized international groups campaigning for Pamuk. "I don't think the way they act is very proper in this case," he said.
Whatever the outcome of Pamuk's trial, Turkish free-speech campaigners like Sanar Yurdatapan hope to use the publicity to further their cause. "We [have] prepared a larger civil-disobedience action," Yurdatapan said. "This will be the start of a new text in which different articles of the new Penal Code which are really very bad, we [will] violate all of them in one paragraph, we will collect many signatures together and force the prosecutor to open similar cases.… We will force them to open the case against us, too, or dismiss all the cases and change all those negative articles in the Penal Code."
If convicted, Pamuk faces up to three years in jail. In October, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, was tried for the same offense and received a suspended sentence.
But Pamuk, writing this week in "The New Yorker" magazine, said he remains optimistic. "I believe the case against me is thin," he wrote. "I do not think I will end up in jail."
CALL IT GENOCIDE? Questions surrounding the mass killings of Armenians at the beginning of the last century continue to dominate relations between Armenia and Turkey. In April, Ankara proposed conducting a joint Armenian-Turkish investigation into the mass killings and deportations of Armenians during World War I.
Turkish leaders suggested that the two countries set up a joint commission of historians to determine whether the massacres carried out between 1915 and 1917 constituted genocide. Armenia, however, insisted it would continue to seek international recognition and condemnation of what it says was a deliberate attempt at exterminating an entire people....(more)
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