On 6 February 2005, one of Turkey’s best-known authors, Orhan Pamuk, gave an interview to a Swiss newspaper, the Tages-Anzeiger, in which he referred to the widespread murder of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Empire forces between 1915 and 1917. He also referred to thirty thousand Kurdish deaths, since 1984, in the conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists. Pamuk was quoted as saying that ‘thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it’. Debate on these issues has been stifled by stringent laws, some leading to lengthy lawsuits, fines and in some cases prison terms.
In September 2005, a European Assembly resolution called on Ankara ‘to recognise the genocide of the Armenians’ and consider this a ‘prerequisite to accession to the European Union’. Turkey denies that the killings were systematic, maintaining that the deaths occurred in a civil war in which many Turks were also killed.
Born in Istanbul in 1952, Pamuk gained international prominence when his novel The White Castle won the Independent Award for Foreign Fiction in 1990; he has since been published worldwide in over twenty languages. In 2003 he won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for My Name is Red, and his 2004 novel Snow, which deals with the conflict between a secular state and Islamic fanaticism, met with similar acclaim. His most recent book, Istanbul, is a personal history of his native city, where he still lives.
Pamuk’s comments were reprinted in the Turkish press the following day and he was denounced as a traitor by leading commentators. News of the interview swiftly spread, leading to protests and the burning of copies of his books. After he suffered death threats from extremists, Pamuk’s friends advised him to leave the country, hoping the furore would die down. But on his return to Turkey in the summer, a public prosecutor brought a case against the author, and he now faces a three-year prison term as a result of the interview.
What Pamuk said was seen as an infringement of Article 301/1 of the recently revised Turkish Penal code, and his case will be brought before an Istanbul court on 16 December 2005. The article states that ‘the public denigration of Turkish identity’ is a crime and recommends a prison sentence of between six and thirty-six months for those found guilty. To compound matters, when an infringement such as this is committed by a Turkish citizen in a foreign country the penalty is increased by a third.
Fellow writers around the world are outraged at Pamuk’s treatment by the Turkish authorities. On top of his international reputation as a writer, he is considered by many to be a leading cultural ambassador for modern Turkey. Many believe that Pamuk’s case is the result of an attempt by anti-European Union elements or nationalists in Turkey to scupper the government’s attempts to join the EU. It is worth noting that in September 2005 Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan condemned a Turkish court’s decision to order the cancellation of a conference about the Armenian killings and the meeting was rescheduled.
Although there has been a series of amendments to the Penal Code in recent years, aimed at meeting demands for human rights improvements and enhancing Turkey’s application for membership of the EU, according to PEN (the international association of writers) there are currently over fifty writers, journalists and publishers standing before the courts. PEN has launched a writers’ petition protesting against the decision to bring Pamuk to trial and expressing concern that 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 crucial) should have a Penal Code that includes a clause contrary to the principles upheld by these very same accords.
Maureen Freely, Pamuk’s friend and English translator, believes that the government could persuade the public prosecutor to drop his case. But Freely is also concerned that ‘there has been a slow but steady rise of nationalist, anti-EU sentiment inside the ruling party, an even more dramatic rise in nationalist rhetoric in the main opposition party, and a growing recalcitrance in the vast state bureaucracies that must implement the sweeping legal, social, and economic changes Turkey must make if it is join the EU’. She also pointed out that Pamuk is not the only writer under threat. At the time of writing, there is concern that similar action may be taken by public prosecutors against the fifty scholars who took part in the aforementioned September conference which attempted to open up the debate on the issue of the Armenian genocide.
Another law prohibits Pamuk from commenting on his case while it is pending, so it is up to his readers and fellow writers, as well as his friends, to protest against his treatment. Readers may like to send appeals expressing concern that Orhan Pamuk is to be tried for a statement made in an interview for an overseas publication (and pointing out that this is in direct contravention of both the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Turkish government is a signatory) to:
Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan
Fax: 00 90 312 417 0476
Update: Khin Zaw Win, of Myanmar, the subject of the July 2005 ‘Silenced Voices’, was unexpectedly released under amnesty.