Lucy Popescu

Mehmet Güler Ragip Zarakolu

Like others before him, Mehmet Güler is on trial in Turkey for the remarks of his fictional characters. He is charged under article 7/2 of Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law, accused of ‘spreading propaganda’ for the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). In his novel, More Difficult Decisions than Death, three characters, Siti, Sabri and Siyar, are engaged in PKK activities. In one part of the book a PKK member on trial says, ‘This court has no right to judge me. I fight for freedom. I do not recognise this court.’ The fictional judge’s response and some of the ensuing passages form part of the indictment against the author. Güler has been on trial since May 2009 and faces a prison sentence of up to seven-and-a-half years. The prosecutor has claimed that parts of the novel encourage readers to sympathise with the PKK. A verdict is expected to be given at the next trial hearing, which is due on 10 June. 

In September 2006, the well-known author Elif Shafak faced a similar fate for her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. She was charged with ‘insulting Turkishness’, under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, because one of her characters referred to the systematic killing of Armenians by Ottoman troops between 1915 and 1917 as ‘genocide’. After an international outcry, the case ended in an acquittal the same year. Amendments to the notorious Article 301 have subsequently been made, but writers continue to be persecuted for attempting to write on issues deemed sensitive by the Turkish authorities. 

Güler’s publisher, Ragip Zarakolu, aged sixty-two, is to be tried with the novelist and faces the same prison sentence should they both be found guilty. Zarakolu is no stranger to this kind of harassment from the Turkish judiciary. He has undergone countless trials and periods of imprisonment over the years and was featured in these pages in February 2009 for another case against him. More often than not, the charges are dropped, writers are acquitted or the sentences are commuted to a fine. However, the frequency of the trials against writers and publishers inevitably creates a climate of fear and self-censorship and serves to deter others from writing on taboo or sensitive topics.

Zarakolu is known for publishing books on issues considered controversial in Turkey, including minority and human rights. He first served time in prison in 1971 when he was sentenced to three years after refusing to abandon a campaign for freedom of expression that called for an ‘attitude of respect for different thoughts and cultures to become widespread in Turkey’. He was accused of involvement with a communist organisation. For twenty years, between 1971 and 1991, Zarakolu was banned from travelling outside Turkey. He co-founded a publishing house with his late wife in 1977.

In recent years he has been judicially harassed for translating books from Armenian and Greek authors into the Turkish language and for publishing books by political prisoners. Zarakolu’s steadfast belief in freedom of speech, his vocal campaign against book bannings and his persistence in publishing works that violate Turkey’s repressive censorship laws have resulted in numerous indictments against him. In 2008, the International Publishers Association awarded Zarakolu its annual Freedom to Publish Prize in recognition of his exemplary courage. 

At a hearing on 19 November 2009, the prosecutor noted that no crime had been committed and called for Güler and Zarakolu to be released. However, at the following hearing, on 25 March 2010, another prosecutor claimed that the book served as terrorist propaganda. At the time Zarakolu commented: ‘When the case was opened, there was a cold strong wind blowing through the country. When our acquittal was suggested in November, the atmosphere was warm and soft. Today a harsh wind is blowing again. I think the atmosphere in this trial reflects that of the country.’ Of the book and the trial against him, Güler has stated that he believes literature can help to tackle problems in Turkey, pointing out that it is ‘the best way to deal with social trauma’. 

Readers might like to write appeals expressing concern about the trial of Ragip Zarakolu and Mehmet Güler and urging that they be granted a full acquittal. They should note that to convict them would be in violation of Turkey’s obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and express the hope that the Turkish government will review all relevant laws regarding freedom of expression in accordance with international human rights standards. 

Appeals should be addressed to:

His Excellency Mehmet Yiğit Alpogan
Turkish Embassy
43 Belgrave Square
London
SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 0066 

PEN has included Zarakolu in its list of fifty emblematic cases, part of its Because Writers Speak Their Minds campaign marking the Writers in Prison Committee’s fiftieth anniversary.

Please visit http://www.internationalpen.org.uk for further information.

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