Turkish Journalists Charged in New Test of Free Speech

ANKARA (Reuters)–In a fresh test of Turkey’s human rights record and its bid to join the EU–a state prosecutor has filed charges against five journalists for commen’s they made about the recent Istanbul conference on Ottoman Armenia’s.

The five respected newspaper columnists face between six months and 10 years in jail if found guilty of the charges of "trying to influence the judicial process" and "insulting state judicial organs," Turkish media reported on Saturday.

Four of the five columnists are being charged under the controversial Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code–the same used against many other journalists and the country’s most famous novelist–Orhan Pamuk–whose trial begins on December 16. The article makes it a crime to insult state institutions or "Turkishness."

The trial of the columnists is scheduled to start on February 7–2006. Four of them work for the liberal Radikal newspaper and the fifth for the centrist Milliyet daily.

The journalists had all criticized efforts by prosecutors and nationalist lawyers to ban a September academic conference at two universities in Istanbul dedicated to the Armenian genocide committed by Ottoman Turkish forces 90 years ago.

Although a court blocked the conference at the prosecutors’ request–much to the embarrassment of Turkey’s pro-EU government–organizers circumvented the ban at the last minute by moving the venue to a third university in Istanbul.

In their columns–the five journalists had branded the court ruling an attack on academic freedom and a travesty of justice.

A group of nationalist lawyers backs the Istanbul district prosecutor’s filing of charges against the five columnists.

The issue of the Armenian genocide is still a sensitive one in Turkey.

Ankara has always denied the occurrence of the Armenian genocide but–under EU pressure–has called for historians to debate the issue.

Pamuk–the internationally known author of such novels as "My Name is Red" and "Snow," caused a furore earlier this year when he said Turkey should face up to its responsibility for the deaths of the Armenia’s.

European Commissioner for Enlargement Olli Rehn has called Pamuk’s trial "a provocation" by conservative forces opposed to Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul says he is confident that the charges against Pamuk will be dropped. But his government has so far resisted EU calls to modify or scrap Article 301.

The timing of the charges against Pamuk and the journalists is awkward for Turkey as it tries to overcome long-standing EU doubts over its commitment to freedom of expression. Ankara began EU entry talks in October–but is not expected to join the wealthy bloc until 2015–at the earliest.

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