‘My aim was to start a bit of discussion’
By Ramsay Short
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
BEIRUT: First it was the acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie. He faced death threats and an Iranian fatwa against him for his so called perversion of the Koran and Islam in the novel “The Satanic Verses.” Now, as the date nears for Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s criminal trial over controversial comments he made regarding the Armenian massacres of 1915 to 1917, the novelist has spoken out against his detractors. But it seems freedom of expression for some writers in the Middle East is as far away as ever.
Pamuk told CNN Turk Television on Saturday that he expects to be acquitted over his remarks but warned that court cases against intellectuals are damaging Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
“I do not believe my case will result in a conviction, but one cannot join the EU by making one’s writers suffer at the courts,” Pamuk, 53, said.
Pamuk is one of Turkey’s most well known authors, whose works have been published world wide in over 20 languages. In 2003 he won the International IMPAC award for “My Name is Red” and his 2004 novel “Snow” met with similar acclaim. His most recent book, “Istanbul,” is a personal history of his native city.
He is set to appear in court on December 16 on charges of denigrating Turkish national identity by telling a Swiss newspaper that “one million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.”
Pamuk was referring to the killings by Ottoman Empire forces of thousands of Armenians in 1915-17. Turkey does not contest the deaths, but denies that it can be called a “genocide.” His 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 extreme cases prison terms. Pamuk faces a jail term of between six months and three years if convicted on charges of denigrating Turkish national identity.
For mainstream Turkish society the killings of the Armenians during World War I are still a taboo subject. Earlier this year news of the interview in the Swiss newspaper Das Magazin on February 6 sparked protests and reports that copies of his books were burned. He also suffered death threats from extremists, as Rushdie did.
A provincial official in western Turkey even ordered the seizure and destruction of his books, but the order was retracted when the EU-wary government intervened.
“I’m still standing behind my words,” a defiant Pamuk told CNN Turk. “My aim was to start a little bit of a discussion on this taboo, because this taboo is an obstacle for our entry into the EU,” he said, referring to the killings of Armenians, which many countries have recognized as genocide, much to Ankara’s ire. “What I say may not be true, you may not agree with me, but I have the right to say it,” he said.
Pamuk said he felt disturbed over what he described as attempts by opponents of Turkey’s EU membership to use the court case against him for their own political ends.
“I support Turkey’s bid to join the EU … but I cannot tell those opponents of Turkey, ‘It’s none of your business whether they try me or not’ … so I feel stuck in between. This is a burden,” he said.
Joanne Leedom Ackerman, International Secretary of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers that works to promote friendship and intellectual co-operation among writers everywhere and to fight for freedom of expression and represent the conscience of world literature, said in a statement that Pamuk’s situation was particularly worrying.
“International PEN is deeply concerned by the efforts of the public prosecutor to punish and therefore curb the free expression of Orhan Pamuk, not only in Turkey, but abroad. It is a disturbing development when an official of the government brings criminal charges against a writer for a statement made in another country, a country where freedom of expression is allowed and protected by law.”
According to PEN, Article 301/1 of the Turkish Penal Code under which Pamuk will be tried is contradictory for it goes against Turkey’s ratification of 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.
As quoted on the PEN Web site, Article 301/1 says: “A person who explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, shall be imposed to a penalty of imprisonment for a term of six months to three years.”
It also adds that “Where insulting being a Turk is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country, the penalty to be imposed shall be increased by one third.”
Just last week Pamuk was the subject of international attention once again as his name was banded around as a strong possibility for the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was eventually awarded to British playwright and outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Harold Pinter. Despite making many comments against Prime Minister Tony Blair and his policies over Iraq, Pinter has not faced trial for anti-government comments. – With agencies