By Amberin Zaman in Ankara and Tony Paterson in Berlin
An internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist who faces prosecution for speaking out about the mass slaughter of Armenians last century has said the case against him shows his country may not be ready to join the European Union.
Orhan Pamuk, who faces up to three years in jail if convicted at his trial in December of “denigrating Turkey”, said that reforms promised by the Turkish government in return for a guarantee of talks on EU membership had not materialised.
Prosecutors provoked a furore across Europe last month by announcing the action against him under the country’s recently adopted penal code, which is supposed to bring Turkish criminal law more closely into line with that of EU countries.
In his first interview since the prosecution was announced, Pamuk declared: “Unfortunately I do not believe that Turkey has come very far in this respect. Nothing has happened over the past year. Turkey has sat on the promises that Europe has given and taken it easy.”
Although forbidden to comment directly on his own case, the best-selling author added: “Turkey has not changed so much. Laws have been changed, but the thought processes, our culture and our way of seeing things… that has not changed much.
“There have been legal and political changes in the hope of EU membership. But the trial opened against me shows… that the state prosecutors have not changed very much. It shows that there is not much tolerance in society.”
Pamuk’s comments, in an interview with a German newspaper, come as several countries, including France, have stepped up their effort to block Turkey’s entry to the EU after public opposition to the inclusion of such a large, predominantly Muslim, country.
The EU has long cited Turkey’s chequered record on human rights as an obstacle to membership, and its government – led by Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s mildly Islamist prime minister – has enacted a series of new laws in an attempt to overcome the objection. Talks on membership are due to start next month.
Critics maintain that Turkey’s new penal code falls short of EU standards by proscribing free debate of the Armenian tragedy and criticism of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus.
Last week Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, singled out the Pamuk prosecution for criticism in a speech in which he nonetheless argued for Turkish membership of the EU. “There is still some way to go with implementation, as the recent charges against the distinguished Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk show, in the context of freedom of speech,” he said.
Pamuk drew nationalist ire in Turkey and received anonymous death threats after telling a Swiss newspaper in February that “30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it”. One Turkish official in the western town of Sutluce ordered citizens to destroy all of his books.
Several of Pamuk’s novels, including the acclaimed My Name is Red, have been translated into English. His most recent bestseller, Snow, explores tensions between Turkey’s secular elite and religious conservatives.
Turkey has long denied that more than one million members of its once thriving Armenian community were the victims of systematic annihilation between 1915 and 1923. Armenians and many others label the campaign genocide – a description of the events which is proscribed in Turkish law.
The Turkish government insists that a smaller number of Armenians – several hundred thousand – died unintentionally of exposure, famine and disease as they journeyed to Syria, after being deported for collaborating with invading Russian forces.
Prosecutors are still deciding whether to bring further charges against Pamuk for referring to the more recent killing of Kurds – whose sometimes violent separatist movements in the east of the country have been brutally suppressed by successive Turkish governments.
Mr Erdogan won strong praise from EU governments in April when he called for a joint commission of Turkish and Armenian scholars to research the events of 1915. It was the first time Turkish leaders had invited international scrutiny of the deaths. This month a group of Turkish academics who challenge the official line, saying that there was a conspiracy to kill, will be allowed to gather in Istanbul to air their views for the first time.