Pamuk Case Highlights Turkey’s Limits on Free Speech

ISTANBUL (Reuters)–This week’s trial of novelist Orhan Pamuk is drawing unprecedented international media attention–but out of the spotlight many other Turkish writers face punishment for expressing dissenting views.

Issues such as the Kurdish problem–the role of the army–and the Armenian genocide during World War One present a minefield for critics who risk prosecution by zealous defenders of Turkey’s state orthodoxy.

Despite big strides by Turkey in recent years to improve its human rights record–the European Union–with which it began entry talks in October–wants Ankara to tackle long-standing restrictions on its writers.

"From the world-renowned poet Nazim Hikmet in the 1930s to Orhan Pamuk today–Turkish judges have prosecuted and imprisoned the country’s greatest writers," said Holly Cartner–Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"A Turkish judge needs to make a really strong declaration to prove that those days are finally over," she said.

The case of Pamuk–author of "My Name is Red" and "Snow," opens on Friday.

He caused uproar this year in Turkey by saying a million Armenia’s were killed during World War One and 30,000 Kurds in recent decades. Pamuk–who did not describe the killings as genocide–faces up to 3 years in jail if convicted.

Pamuk is charged with insulting "Turkishness" under Article 301 of Turkey’s recently revised penal code–which is at the heart of international concerns. Other crimes include insulting the army–government and Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Prosecutions such as these rarely end in imprisonment and more often result in fines or acquittals.

Turkey’s conservative establishment–including judges and the military–traditionally put the interests of the state above individual freedoms and fear some human rights reforms may undermine national unity.

Ankara has always rejected claims that Ottoman forces committed genocide against Armenia’s but under EU pressure has called for historians to debate the rights and wrongs of the issue.

However–after a conference did just that in September five respected newspaper columnists were charged for saying a court bid to prevent it happening was an attack on academic freedom.

They face between 6 months and 10 years in jail if found guilty of "trying to influence the judicial process" and "insulting state judicial organs."

The Turkish Press Council–a platform created by journalists to promote freedom of the press–has condemned the case.

"Unfortunately freedom of expression in Turkey is limited to an extent which is unacceptable in a modern democracy," said Press Council Chairman Oktay Eksi.

An EU-inspired revision of the penal code which came into effect on June 1 improved women’s rights and imposed tougher penalties for rape–torture–and human trafficking.

But the EU and rights groups have urged Ankara to modify or scrap Article 301–saying it curbs freedom of expression.

Many cases opened under the law relate to writing on the conflict between the state and rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party–in which more than 30,000 people have died.

Publisher Fatih Tas was recently sentenced to six months in jail for "insulting the Turkish Republic" in a book dealing with the role of paramilitary forces in extrajudicial killings–largely targeting Kurdish activists–during the 1990s.

In another case–prosecutors last month charged journalist Birol Duru with "insulting the security forces" for publishing a Human Rights Association report saying security forces had burned forests in the eastern provinces of Bingol and Tunceli.

Ankara has resisted pressure to amend the law–saying it would not be rushed. It says implementation of the new laws needs time to take root–stressing the judiciary’s independence.

"In the last three or four years we have made great progress on freedom of expression in Turkey," said government deputy Burhan Kuzu–chairman of parliament’s Constitutional Commission.

"The legal model which we have created is not very different from those in Europe. There may be differences in implementation by prosecutors and judges and this can be discussed," he said.

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