Court Cases against Turkey's Intellectuals

The Criminalisation of Criticism

Last year, Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's foremost writer and intellectual, was put on trial in connection with statements made in an interview referring to the genocide against the Armenians in Turkey. This notorious case was only the tip of an iceberg, writes Günter Seufert

"I come from a family all of whose relations were slaughtered by the Turks in 1915. I've learnt to keep quiet about my origins, and it's been made clear to me that there never was a genocide." In her novel "Father and Bastard" ("Baba ve Piç"), the young Turkish author Elif Shafak put these words into the mouth of an Armenian woman who had grown up in Istanbul and now lives in the USA.

Shafak's book is a story about women in San Francisco and Istanbul who find a way to develop a relationship, in spite of the history of suffering which exists between their peoples.

The muzzles are waiting

On 6 June, Shafak was questioned by the prosecutor in connection with that sentence. Nationalists had brought an action against her for insulting Turkish values, or "Turkishness". Shafak defends herself: "In my book there are also figures who say exactly the opposite," she says, and adds that one has to be able to separate fiction from reality.

If a writer describes a murder in a book, one can't call the writer a murderer. But when, as is the case in Turkey, the state imposes its definition of reality as absolute truth, then the atmosphere for writers becomes rather thin. A writer who presents reality as defined by fictional characters alongside reality as defined by the state is likely to come into conflict with the authorities.

The new Turkish criminal code is well equipped to pursue this kind of case. It was drawn up in September 2004 on the insistence of the EU, which confirmed the following month that Turkey had thereby met the political Copenhagen criteria. The code was toughened in May 2005 and now places more restrictions on writers, journalists, artists and academics than in any other country in Europe.

A code designed to punish "incorrect" opinion

Between the beginning of 2005 and June 2006, 49 books and their writers were charged with offences – on average, one every eleven days. And these do not include the many cases brought against journalists, nor the case against Orhan Pamuk, which was not based on the content of one of his books.

Among the paragraphs in the new code designed to punish "incorrect" opinion, the most reliable for the authorities has proved to be the one on insulting Turkish values (or "Turkishness"), the army and the republic.

But even innocent-sounding provisions, such as the ban on sedition or the protection of personal honour, are formulated in such a way that they can easily be used to criminalise critical voices. The Association of Turkish Publishers says that no less than twenty provisions of the code would have to be changed to ensure legal security for writers and publishers. It's the Association which has published the latest list of books currently facing criminal charges.

"The Witches of Smyrna"

But until the changes which the Association calls for are made, cases like that against Abdullah Yildiz, will continue to be pursued. He's the publisher of "The Witches of Smyrna" ("Izmir Büyücüleri"), a translation into Turkish of a book by the Greek anthropologist Mara Meimaridi. The book describes the cosmopolitan life of Izmir in the nineteenth century, especially the life of the women of the city's Greek, Jewish, Turkish and Armenian communities.

As in the case of Elif Shafak's book, the charges relate to specific passages rather than to the book as a whole. And the charge is the same: insulting Turkish values – this time because Turkish women are portrayed unfavourably. The book, however, is a bestseller in Turkey, and Turkish television stations are currently negotiating with a Greek television station to buy a series based on the book.

Such cases, where one doesn't know whether to laugh or to cry, are usually initiated by "private" groups. The most well-known of them is the "Lawyers' Association" led by the lawyer Kemal Kerinçsiz. He started the cases against Orhan Pamuk and the Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink. But in spite of the often laughable accusations, judges and prosecutors often pursue the cases; trials last for years and nationalists sometimes physically attack the accused and the defence lawyers during the trial.

The hot potato of the Kurdish question

In cases where books directly question state orthodoxy, the justice system itself goes into action. One such book was "The truth will make us free" ("Gerçek bizi özgür klacak") by the Armenian historian George Jerjian, who takes a different view from that of the state as to the incidents of 1915.

Another was "The Diary of Izmir" ("Izmir Güncesi") by Doka Bakayan, which describes the re-conquest of Izmir by Turkish troops in 1922. In both cases, the man facing the charges is Ragip Zarakolu, the owner of the Belge publishing house. He's used to the problem: he's been involved with the courts since 1968 and has already served four terms of imprisonment for publishing undesirable books.

This time he faces thirteen years in prison for three books – the third is "Burnt villages" ("Bin yllarn miras yakld: yitik köyler"), which lists those villages, mostly Kurdish, which have fallen victim to the military action of the Turkish army against the Kurdish separatist PKK.

The largest number of books facing charges – eighteen of the 49 – deal, like "Burnt villages," with the Kurdish question. Among them are books like "Tornado Division" ("Kasgra Taburu"), which glorify the PKK's guerrilla fighters, or books which report sympathetically on the travails and arrest of the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

Books by foreign authors are also likely to land up in court – one is the Turkish translation of John Tilman's 1997 "Spoils of War" ("Savas Ganimetleri"), which looks at the links between the military, politics and defence industry in the USA and their cooperation with authoritarian regimes throughout the world, of which Turkey is given as the main example.

The book, which caused a storm in the United States when it was published there, has been charged with insulting the republic, the military and the memory of Kemal Atatürk. Its Turkish publisher, 26-year-old Fatih Tas, now faces six months in prison.

Charges of immorality and lack of taste

For ten years, the state refrained from reacting to books about the Armenian issue. The latest cases are a reaction to increased pressure from abroad following the commemoration in 2005 of the ninetieth anniversary of the massacre. In addition, the discussion of the issue in Turkey itself can no longer be suppressed.

Not all writers who are charged are found guilty. But most of the cases which are dismissed concern charges of immorality and lack of taste – for example, books of cartoons or poems, or erotic literature such as the Turkish translation of a book by the Marquis de Sade.

Around ten of the 49 books which have faced charges deal directly with the state, its ideology and its army. Their writers pay the price for their choice of subject matter, even if they formulate their words cautiously. One example is "The Story of Two Cities" ("Iki Sehrin Hikayesi"), a collection by Seyfi Öngider which deals with the relationship between Istanbul and Ankara. Öngider could face a prison sentence of between one and three years because he described Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish state, as "immeasurably ambitious" and thus broke another of the republic's taboos.

Günter Seufert

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

© NZZ/ 2006

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Related Topics
In submitting this comment, the reader accepts the following terms and conditions: reserves the right to edit or delete comments or not to publish them. This applies in particular to defamatory, racist, personal, or irrelevant comments or comments written in dialects or languages other than English. Comments submitted by readers using fantasy names or intentionally false names will not be published. will not provide information on the telephone. Readers' comments can be found by Google and other search engines.
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.