This is a very sensitive subject, because every subject relating to the Military is very sensitive. Very, very sensitive in this country. When it’s anything to do with the army: any suggestion/any criticism/why it’s like this/why it’s like that, you’re always in the wrong, you’re an elephant in a china shop.
Perihan Mağden, in Yeni Aktüel (translated by Alev Adil).
In LR November 2005, I wrote about leading Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was facing a three-year prison sentence as a result of an interview he gave to a Swiss newspaper. Following widespread media coverage and a lot of international pressure, Pamuk’s trial was eventually stopped on a technicality.
This month, on 7 June, another Turkish novelist, Perihan Mağden, stands trial, accused by the military authorities of ‘alienating the people from military service’, and she faces up to three years in prison if convicted. Like Pamuk, Mağden is published in the UK. Her latest book, 2 Girls, was a bestseller in Turkey and had a warm reception over here – described by one critic as an ‘unsparing portrait of modern Turkey’. It was also made into a film by Kutlug Ataman, receiving its British premiere at the London Film Festival last autumn.
Mağden’s is one of many trials brought against writers and journalists in Turkey. They are often charged under Article 301 of the Penal Code, which can result in a prison sentence for any person who ‘explicitly insults being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly, the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial bodies of the State, the military or security organisation’.
There have been ugly scenes inside and outside the courts, with the defendants and European trial observers suffering the brunt of the abuse. Images of the scuffles, hate-filled faces and riot police observed at Pamuk’s court appearance in December 2005 were published in numerous papers, creating adverse publicity worldwide for the Turkish state and its judicial system.
Eyewitness accounts of the trials of lesser-known writers and journalists describe similar animosity when international observers are present. Recently journalist Jonathan Fryer, in Istanbul on behalf of the writers’ organisation PEN, reported that ‘a dozen right-wing nationalist lawyers (some of whom had instigated the prosecution) immediately started haranguing the judge, demanding that the “colonialist” foreigners be expelled, then kept up a tirade of abuse in a clear effort to intimidate … Eventually the judge called in a squad of riot police to physically eject the most vociferous lawyer, which led to scuffles, with kicks and punches, and at least one lawyer’s robes were torn.’
Most of the time the trial hearings are postponed and the defendants destined for more weeks if not months of uncertainty. Regardless of whether they are acquitted or not, lengthy court cases effectively silence writers, journalists and publishers, who are intimidated into self-censorship, or are unable to carry on their professions while their trial is ongoing.
The political situation in Turkey is complex and one cannot merely blame the government, who are showing some commitment to reform. However, this process is clearly inhibited by anti-reform elements within the judiciary, police, and army, and attempts to stifle freedom of expression often come from these sources.
Mağden is one writer who refuses to be intimidated. Born in Istanbul in 1960, a graduate in psychology from Istanbul’s Bosphorus University, she has written short stories, novels, and poems. From 1997 to 2000 Mağden worked for the Turkish newspaper Radikal and has been in trouble previously when she was reportedly sued by the Turkish authorities for her exposé of their practices.
Mağden remains in Istanbul and is currently a columnist on the weekly magazine Yeni Aktüel. Last December she wrote a column entitled ‘Conscientious Objection is a Human Right’, which defended a conscientious objector. Mehmet Tarhan has been in prison for several years for refusing compulsory military service and requesting permission to serve his country in another way more consistent with his humanitarian beliefs. Mağden suggested in her article that in a modern country with ambitions to join the European Union there should be options for humanitarians other than joining the army, such as civil-service or teaching positions.
Since publication, the military authorities in Turkey have been preparing a case against Mağden, and the warrant for her arrest was issued in April 2006. The indictment apparently claims that the writer alienated people from undertaking military service rather than merely expressing criticism. According to her publishers, Serpent’s Tail, a notoriously nationalistic judge opened the case and has responded to the military’s demands for the harshest possible sentence by recommending a minimum of three years in prison.
In April Mağden was researching a novel in Thailand. Following the warrant, she returned to Turkey as originally planned, and has said that she will not be forced into exile. She intends remaining in Turkey for the trial, whether this results in her imprisonment or not.
Following the pattern of recent trials of writers, Mağden’s is likely to be adjourned. International pressure does help, so readers may like to send appeals, before and after 7 June, calling for the charges against Perihan Mağden to be dropped to:
Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan
Fax: 00 90 312 417 0476