On 23 September Erol Ozkoray, a Turkish journalist, publisher and intellectual, received a suspended sentence of eleven months and twenty days in prison, after being accused of defaming the authoritarian president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in his book about the Gezi Park protests. In May 2013, a small group of environmental campaigners conducted a peaceful demonstration in Gezi Park in Istanbul, to protest about the construction of a shopping mall. The violent eviction of the campaigners sparked nationwide protests about a wide range of issues, including freedom of the press, expression and assembly. This snowballed into an unprecedented demonstration against the state, which became known as the Turkish Spring. By the end of July, according to official government estimates, over 3.5 million people across eighty of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces had taken to the streets in solidarity with the Gezi Park protesters.
Ozkoray’s book, The Gezi Phenomenon, published in 2013, when Erdoğan was still prime minister, features pictures of anti-Erdoğan graffiti and quotes slogans and banners directed at Erdoğan by the Gezi Park protesters. The Second Istanbul Criminal Court of First Instance deemed Ozkoray to have engaged in criminal defamation by reproducing these pictures, slogans and banners in print. He was handed an aggravated sentence for having committed the offence via publication at a hearing that neither he nor his lawyer attended on grounds of ill health. Ozkoray will have to serve his suspended sentence if he is convicted of criminal defamation again in the next five years.
In May this year, Ozkoray was awarded the Ayşenur Zarakolu Award for Freedom of Thought and Expression by the Human Rights Association, a Turkish NGO. He is well known for his critical writing on various issues. Before Erdoğan’s rise to power, army generals dominated Turkish politics for decades. Ozkoray openly criticised the military’s intervention during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In his work for the Idea Politika magazine, where he was owner, manager and editor-in-chief between 1998 and 2002, Ozkoray challenged the system of military tutelage. The military has been responsible for repressing Kurdish and Islamist political movements through coups, closures of political parties and anti-terror investigations.
Ozkoray has written several books about the military’s role in politics, including The Totalitarian Turkish Farm (2006), What is the Military for? (2007) and Turkey: The Permanent Putsch (published in English in 2011). He has contributed articles to a wide range of newspapers in Turkey and currently writes for Jiyan!, an independent online news outlet. More recently Ozkoray has explored the increasing repression of the ruling Justice and Development Party in his books The 5th Republic (2012) and The Gezi Phenomenon. Both were published by Ozkoray’s publishing house, Idea Politika Yayınları.
Since the Gezi Park protests there has been a renewed crackdown on free expression in Turkey and Ozkoray’s conviction comes in the aftermath of several highly publicised defamation cases brought by Erdoğan against some of his most prominent critics in the media, including Ahmet Altan, Can Dündar and Ihsan Eliaçık. PEN and other lobby groups have repeatedly called for the decriminalisation of defamation in Turkey. The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has stated that ‘all criminal defamation laws should be abolished and replaced, where necessary, with appropriate civil defamation laws’.
I’ve also written in these pages about the case of Turkish sociologist, writer and feminist Pınar Selek (LR, March 2013). Last month she faced trial for the fifth time in sixteen years over an explosion in 1998 that killed seven and injured one hundred in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar. Selek has been acquitted of all charges three times (in 2006, 2008 and 2011). Expert witnesses have repeatedly testified that the cause of the explosion was a gas leak rather than a bomb, but the courts have ordered retrials after each of these acquittals. Selek’s fourth trial resulted in a conviction in January 2013, when she was handed an aggravated life sentence, though this conviction was overturned by Turkey’s Supreme Court of Appeals on 11 June 2014 on procedural grounds.
On 3 October an Istanbul court decided to continue the trial. Selek, known for her work on the rights of vulnerable communities in Turkey, has fled the country as a result of the judicial harassment against her and now lives abroad. She has written extensively about the plight of women, the poor, street children, the LGBT community and the Kurds in Turkey. She has been published in Turkish, French and German and is one of the founding editors of Amargi, a leading Turkish feminist journal.
PEN believes that the sixteen-year persecution of Selek is linked to her work as a sociologist researching Kurdish issues in the mid- to late 1990s and to her contact with the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). No evidence has been presented that shows Selek to have been a member of the PKK or to have engaged in violent activities. It is widely believed that she is being pursued through the courts as a means of penalising her for her legitimate research and commentary. During her imprisonment from 1998 to 2000, Selek suffered torture under investigation in attempts to make her confess to the charges.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the conviction of Erol Ozkoray and the heavy prison sentence he faces if convicted of criminal defamation again in the next five years; calling for defamation to be decriminalised in Turkey; protesting the continuing judicial harassment of Pınar Selek after sixteen years of trials and multiple acquittals; and calling on the Turkish authorities to acquit her of all charges and to drop the arrest warrant against her immediately, enabling her to return to Turkey without fear of arrest.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Abdurrahman Bilgiç
43 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 0066; 020 7393 9213
Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdağ
Milli Müdafaa Caddesi No: 22, Bakanlıklar
06659 Kızılay, Ankara, Turkey
Fax: + 90 312 419 33 70
Email: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org