The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- On both sides of the Bosphorus, Orhan Pamuk's case matters

The work room of the writer Orhan Pamuk looks out over the Bosphorus, that fabled strip of water which, depending on how you see these things, separates or unites ' or, perhaps, separates and unites ' the worlds of Europe and Asia.

There could be no more appropriate setting for a novelist whose work does much the same thing. In many books, most recently the acclaimed novel Snow (Knopf, 2004) and the haunting memoir/portrait of his home town, Istanbul: Memories and the City (Knopf, 2005), Pamuk has laid claim to the title, formerly held by Yashar Kemal, of 'Greatest Turkish Writer'.

He is also an outspoken man. In 1999, for example, he refused the title of 'state artist'.

'For years I have been criticizing the state for putting authors in jail, for only trying to solve the Kurdish problem by force and for its narrow-minded nationalism...,' he said. 'I don't know why they tried to give me the prize.'

He has described Turkey as having 'two souls', and has criticized its human-rights abuses.

'Geographically we are part of Europe,' he says, 'but politically'

I spent some days with Pamuk in July, at a literary festival in the pretty Brazilian seaside town of Parati. For those few days he seemed free of his cares, even though, earlier in the year, death threats made against him by Turkish ultranationalists ' 'He shouldn't be allowed to breathe,' one said ' had forced him to spend two months out of his country.

But the clouds were gathering. The statement he made to the Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger on February 6, 2005, which had been the cause of the ultranationalists' wrath, was about to become a serious problem once again.

'Thirty thousand Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in Turkey,' he told the Swiss paper. 'Almost no one dares to speak out on this but me.'

He was referring to the killings by Ottoman forces of thousands of Armenians between 1915 and 1917. Turkey does not contest the deaths, but denies that they amounted to genocide. Pamuk's reference to '30,000' Kurdish deaths refers to those killed since 1984 in the conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists.

Debate on these issues has been stifled by stringent laws, some leading to lengthy lawsuits, fines and, in some cases, prison terms. On September 1 Pamuk was indicted by a district prosecutor for the crime of having 'blatantly belittled Turkishness' by his remarks. If convicted he faces as long as three years in jail.

Article 301/1 of the Turkish penal code, under which Pamuk is to be tried, states that 'A person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly shall be sentenced to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years... Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty shall be increased by one third.' So, if Pamuk is found guilty, he faces an additional penalty for having made the statement abroad.

You would think that the Turkish authorities might have avoided so blatant an assault on their most internationally celebrated writer's fundamental freedoms at the very moment that their application for full membership of the European Union ' an extremely unpopular application in many EU countries ' was being considered at the EU summit.

However, in spite of being a state that has ratified both the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which see freedom of expression as central, Turkey continues to enforce a penal code that is clearly contrary to these same principles and, in spite of widespread global protests, has set the date for Pamuk's trial. It will begin, unless there is a change of heart, on December 16.

That Pamuk is criticized by Turkish Islamists and radical nationalists is no surprise. That the attackers frequently disparage his works as obscure and self-absorbed, accusing him of having sold out to the West, is no surprise either. It is, however, disappointing to read intellectuals such as Soli Ozel, a newspaper columnist and a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University, criticizing 'those, especially in the West, who would use the indictment against Pamuk to denigrate Turkey's progress toward greater civil rights ' and toward European Union membership.'

Ozel wants the charges against Pamuk thrown out at the trial, and accepts that they represent an 'affront' to free speech, but he prefers to stress 'the distance that the country has covered in the past decade'.

This seems altogether too weak. The number of convictions and prison sentences under the laws that penalize free speech in Turkey has indeed declined in the past decade, but International PEN's records show that more than 50 writers, journalists and publishers currently face trial. Turkish journalists continue to protest against the revised penal code, and the International Publishers Association, in a deposition to the UN, has described this revised code as being 'deeply flawed'.

EU commissioner Jose Manuel Barroso says that Turkey's entry into the EU is by no means assured, that it will have to win over the hearts and minds of the deeply sceptical EU citizenry.

The Turkish application is being presented, most vociferously by Britain's prime minister Tony Blair and foreign secretary Jack Straw, as a test case for the EU. To reject it, we are told, would be a catastrophe, widening the gulf between Islam and the West. There is an element of Blairite poppycock in this, a disturbingly communalist willingness to sacrifice Turkish secularism on the altar of faith-based politics.

But the Turkish application is indeed a test case for the EU: a test of whether the EU has any principles at all. If it has, then its leaders will insist that the charges against Pamuk be dropped at once ' there is no need to keep him waiting for justice until December ' and further insist on rapid revisions to Turkey's repressive penal code.

An unprincipled Europe, which turned its back on great artists and fighters for freedom, would continue to alienate its citizens, whose disenchantment has already been widely demonstrated by the votes against the proposed new constitution.

So the West is being tested as well as the East. On both sides of the Bosphorus, the Pamuk case matters.

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