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Turkey: Court drops prosecution of writer Orhan Pamuk
By Justus Leicht
6 February 2006
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An Istanbul court last month ended the trial of Turkish writer
Orhan Pamuk on technical grounds. In many similar but lesser-
known cases, however, journalists, writers, human rights activists
and politicians have been prosecuted and convicted to prison sentences
Pamuk was charged under a new law against the public
denigration of Turkishness, because in an interview with
the newspaper Züricher Taggesanzeige in February 2005
he had said that during the period of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey
1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds had been killed but nobody
dared to speak out. As a consequence of the interview, Pamuk was
prosecuted on a charge punishable by up to four years in prison.
The law used to prosecute Pamuk, Paragraph 301, was introduced
on June 1, 2005, and replaced Paragraph 159 of the old penal code.
An amnesty was introduced for past offences. The new paragraph
was allegedly aimed at ensuring increased freedom of opinion and
was part of reforms adopted by the Turkish state as a condition
for the countrys future admission into the European Union.
In fact, it soon became clear that previous repressive practices
were merely being continued under the new statute.
Paragraph 301 threatens prison sentences for anyone found guilty
of the offence of public denigration of Turkishness, the
Republic, the parliament, the courts, the military or the security
forces. If the offence is committed abroad, the level of
punishment increases. Mere criticism is supposed to remain exempt
from punishment, but the distinction between criticism and denigration
is left to the arbitrary decisions of the courts and state attorneys.
Last autumn, charges were brought against Pamuk and a number
of others. According to the Turkish Press Council, the largest
association of journalists in the country, journalists, writers
and publishers have faced more than 70 prosecutions since the
introduction of the new law. All of these cases concerned comments
on either the genocide against the Armenians, the Kurdish conflict
or the militarys domination of Turkish society.
One of the most prominent of the accused was Joost Lagendijk,
the Dutch co-chair of the European Union parliaments Turkey
Commission. On December 17 in Istanbul, Lagendijk accused generals
of being behind recent provocations aimed at fomenting clashes
with Kurds. One such incident occurred recently in Semdinli, where
two junior officers and a renegade from the Kurdish Workers
Party (PKK) were discovered as they planted a bomb in the bookshop
of a Kurdish nationalist. Two persons were killed in the course
of the explosion and subsequent gunfire, when one of the officers
fired into a crowd.
The general of Turkeys armed forces, Yasar Bueyuekanit,
later publicly praised the man involved in the shooting and sought
to protect him. The gunman was subsequently accused of the lesser
offence of manslaughter, and the court refused to even deal with
the question of the murders being connected to a terrorist attack.
As the delegate of the European Union, Lagendijk commented on
the incident and declared that the Turkish military sought to
maintain its political influence through its continuous guerrilla
war against the PKK. He was then promptly accused of offending
the armed forces.
An investigation against Lagendijk was opened in December,
but authorities announced this week that they were dropping charges.
The prosecution writs for the numerous court cases stem largely
from a group of ultra-right-wing lawyers with close ties to Turkeys
fascist Grey Wolves movement.
Within the state apparatus itself, the treatment of dissidents,
particularly over the Kurdish issue, has become a source of dispute.
Kurdish separatist tendencies have been strengthened by the US
occupation of Iraq. The Kurdish nationalists in neighbouring northern
Iraq are the only reliable supporters of the occupiers in the
region and consequently have been rewarded with extensive autonomy.
At the same time, large companies and banks in Turkey favour
an orientation to the European Union, upon which they are economically
dependent. While they seek to control social tensions with a limited
degree of political liberalisation and are ready to cooperate
with the Kurdish nationalists in Iraq, a wing in the bureaucracy
and the military is intent on outright measures of suppression.
The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) straddles
both camps. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül indirectly criticised
the trial of Pamuk, while Justice Minister Cemil Cicek took little
care to disguise his sympathy for those denouncing Pamuk as a
national traitor. The European Union commission called the trial
of Pamuk a provocation and a test of the countrys ability
to reform. In European Union countries, the legal proceedings
against Pamuk strengthened the hand of all those forces arguing
against Turkeys admission to the EU.
The beginning of the trial against Pamuk on December 16 was
accompanied by riots. With the police looking on passively, Turkish
nationalists violently attacked the writer and attending foreign
observers. The court postponed the trial, however, calling for
it to reconvene on February 7. The court subsequently ruled that
the charges against Pamuk under Paragraph 301 were inadmissible
because the relevant legislation came into force only after the
disputed interview. Pamuk could only be prosecuted on the basis
of the former law of February 2005. A precondition for such prosecution
would be an express authorisation by the Justice Minister.
Justice Minister Cemil Cicek decided, however, not to take
sides. He quibbled that the old law was no longer valid, and that
therefore he had no authority to permit a trial on such a basis.
In a January 20 letter, Cicek declared that the matter lay outside
his authority and requested the court to decide on any continuation
of the trial. A few days later the court interpreted this request
as a refusal by the Ministry to authorise the trial and dropped
the prosecution. The dozens of other cases brought under the new
paragraph, however, will of course be pursued.
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