Court Case against Intellectuals in Turkey

Minority Issues a Taboo Subject

There is no end to the wave of court cases against Turkish intellectuals on the alleged grounds of denigrating Turkish identity. Immediately following the Pamuk case, two government advisors were also brought to court last week. Günter Seufert reports

Orhan Pamuk on his way to court (photo: AP)
Orhan Pamuk on his way to court. The new 2004 penal code basically gives state prosecutors and the courts a free hand in determining what is an offence, while leaving citizens unclear as to what is permitted or forbidden

​​On October 3 last year, Ankara began direct negotiations with the European Union on possible accession to the organization. Although the EU regards freedom of opinion in Turkey as a criterion for EU membership, political court cases still take place in Turkey, and their number continues to grow.

The case last December against Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most well-known contemporary writer, received the greatest amount of attention, yet it was suddenly dropped in January. A previous case involved Hrant Dink, the publisher of the Armenian weekly paper Agos. In early February this year, five Turkish journalists came up for trial in Istanbul. They had to defend their involvement in a conference dealing with the massacres perpetrated on Armenians between 1915 and 1917.

The pitfalls of the new penal code

And just last week in Ankara, Professors Ibrahim Kaboglu and Baskin Oran were brought to trial. As members of the Human Rights Advisory Council set up by the government, they drew up a report on minority issues. It recommended that minorities should be accorded more rights and suggested a review of the Turkish system of classifying its citizens. Sixty other political trials are currently underway.

The charges are based on often arbitrarily interpreted paragraphs of the new Turkish penal code, which came into effect in June 2004. The law basically gives state prosecutors and the courts a free hand in determining what is an offence, while leaving citizens unclear as to what is permitted or forbidden.

The passing of the new penal code was one of the conditions the European Union set before beginning accession talks. At the time, human rights activists raised the issue of the legal pitfalls of the code, but their warnings mostly fell on deaf ears in Brussels.

Four statutory offences

In particular, four statutory offences have been cited in the current political trials: first, denigrating Turkishness (Pamuk and Dink), second, denigrating the state and/or individual organs of the state (second trial against Pamuk, as well as that against Kaboglu and Oran), third, criticizing the judiciary (the trial against four liberal journalists), and fourth, inciting the population to hostility and hate.

The most recent case against the professors clearly shows how the last rule has been employed and highlights Turkey's system of political justice. In addition, the trial illuminates the role played by religion in what is, superficially at least, a secular country.

In April 2001 and on the insistence of the EU, Erdogan's predecessors created the Human Rights Advisory Council of the Prime Ministry of Turkey. Academics and civil servants together with NGO representatives were to develop joint reform proposals. More than three years later and after the body had long been forgotten by the political establishment, the Working Group on Cultural Rights and Minorities presented its results to the council and an outcry ensued.

In the report, its author, Baskin Oran, professor of political science in Ankara, called for the protection and recognition of Turkey's linguistic and religious minorities, instead of continuing to deny their existence and forcing all citizens to assume the official Turkish-Sunni identity.

In addition, he demanded the promotion of minority languages, while warning against their exclusion. He also complained about the insurmountable barriers preventing the construction of religious houses of worship for these groups. Ibrahim Kaboglu, professor of constitutional law in Istanbul, served as chairman of the council and defended the report on minority issues.

Now, both professors stand trial. "By referring to various social classes, population groups, religions, confessions, and regions" they have incited "the population to reciprocal hate and enmity" state the charges.

"Original" and "secondary" citizens of the Turkish nation

In fact, anyone who raises their voice politically in the name of any non-Turkish identity risks prosecution. The only minorities recognized are the non-Muslim Christian and Jewish communities. The Treaty of Lausanne, the international charter recognizing the founding of the republic, required Turkey to make this concession.

Yet, non-Muslims pay a high price for this recognition – they are not truly first-class citizens of the state. Judgments issued by high courts have repeatedly classified them as "foreigners" and curtail the use and property rights of their religious assets. The indictment against the two professors also distinguishes between "original" and "secondary" members of the Turkish nation.

Accordingly, "original" members are exclusively Muslim, and the word "minority" has extremely disparaging connotations. It is no wonder then that the spokespersons for the Alewites, who are also Muslims, have rejected their classification as a "religious minority" by the EU.

The state regards Islam as an essential element of being Turkish. In this respect, it applies to Kurds in Turkey as well. In public life, however, Islam is not intended to play a role. This policy of state secularism is more strictly adhered to than in countries of the EU. In recent weeks, the state supreme court even ruled that a secular lifestyle is a prerequisite for a career in the civil service.

As a matter of fact, the taboo status of the minority question goes hand in hand with the instrumentalization of Islam by the state. In both cases, the state defines identities and prescribes how citizens should live their lives.

Günter Seufert

© 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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