In November 2012, President Abdullah Gül of Turkey met with an international PEN delegation of writers and expressed his commitment to free speech. Afterwards, John Ralston Saul, PEN International’s president, commented,
President Gül’s recognition of the negative impact of free speech violations on Turkey’s future is important. We were particularly encouraged by his personal commitment to freedom of expression and to the promotion of fundamental rights as the best, most effective tool against terrorism.
Unfortunately, there has been little sign of this commitment. In the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders in late January, Turkey was one of the worst offenders, ranking 154th out of 179 countries. The most recent report of the Committee to Protect Journalists claims that press freedom in Turkey has reached a crisis point, with the authorities engaging in widespread criminal prosecution, imprisoning journalists and using other forms of severe pressure to promote self-censorship.
Turkey is Market Focus Partner at the 2013 London Book Fair, to be held next month. Because there are so many writers in prison or on trial in the country, PEN will be using the occasion to highlight its concerns and various writers at risk. One of these is the writer and sociologist Pınar Selek, who was last covered in these pages in March 2011.
On 24 January 2013, Selek, who currently lives in France, was tried in absentia and received a life sentence. She is accused of involvement in an explosion that occurred in the Istanbul Spice Bazaar in 1998, a tragedy that caused the deaths of 7 people and injured 127 others. Selek was arrested in July of that year and then released two and a half years later after a team of experts concluded that the explosion had not been caused by a bomb but by the accidental ignition of a gas cylinder. She endured torture under investigation in an attempt to make her confess to the charges. Despite the findings, the case against Selek and her co-defendants continued, and in December 2005 a new trial began. This trial ended with an acquittal six months later.
In March 2009, the Court of Appeals requested a review of the case and reversed the acquittal. This was sent for further consideration and in May 2009 Selek was acquitted for a second time. In February 2010, the Court of Appeals objected again and requested the case be reviewed once more. At the time, Yasar Kemal, one of Turkey’s most prominent writers, told PEN, ‘If they don’t acquit Pınar, I’ll protest and leave this country!’
The lower court refused to conduct a review and upheld Selek’s acquittal for a third time in February 2011. However, at a hearing in November 2012, the lower court decided to reopen the trial against Selek on the grounds that the refusal had been ‘contrary to procedure’. The first hearing of the reopened trial was heard on 13 December at the Cağlayan Courts of Justice, with all five suspects in the case being tried in absentia.
Many believe that the prosecution of Selek is linked to her work as a sociologist researching and writing about Kurdish issues in the mid- to late-1990s and her alleged contact with the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). According to PEN, no evidence has been presented that shows Selek to have been a member of the PKK or to have engaged in violent activities. Selek is the founder of the feminist journal Amargi, a PEN member, and has written about subjects deemed contentious in Turkey, such as women’s rights, Kurdish issues, and gay and lesbian rights. Human Rights Watch has referred to the case against her as ‘a perversion of the criminal justice system and abuse of due process’.
PEN Turkey has also come under attack from the authorities in recent months and six board members are currently facing a preliminary criminal investigation. This is because of critical comments posted on its website about the ongoing prosecution of the classical composer, internationally renowned pianist and writer Fazıl Say.
Say, a vocal critic of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, has played with the New York Philharmonic and Berlin Symphony Orchestra and served as a cultural ambassador for the European Union. He is charged with offending Muslims and insulting Islam in comments he made on Twitter. One stated, ‘I am an atheist and I am proud to be able to say this so comfortably.’ He faces up to 18 months in prison if found guilty.
In June 2012, PEN Turkey publicly condemned the prosecution of Say for religious defamation and stated on its website that ‘the international community has been put on alert in the face of fascist developments in Turkey’. On 10 January 2013, six members of the board and Nihat Ateş, a poet and critic who posted the content, were called in for questioning by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation is ongoing.
Readers might like to send appeals protesting the life sentence served against Pınar Selek on charges of which she has already been acquitted three times, for an explosion that experts have concluded was not a terrorist act; urging that the charges against Selek be dismissed and that the arrest warrant against her be removed, enabling her to return to Turkey without fear of detention; protesting the charges against Fazıl Say in violation of his right to free expression; and calling for the investigation against PEN Turkey to be dropped.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Mr Unal Ceviköz
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 9213 / Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mr Sadullah Ergin
Minister of Justice, Turkey
Fax: 00 90 312 419 3370 / Email: email@example.com
Update: On 31 January 2013 the case against the Filipino poet, songwriter, journalist and activist Ericson Acosta (LR, May 2012) was dismissed for lack of evidence. Acosta had been held without trial since February 2011 on what are now acknowledged as trumped-up charges of illegal possession of explosives. It is thought that the international campaign contributed to his release. Thanks to all readers who sent appeals.