The loss of Harold Pinter in December 2008 will be keenly felt not just in the theatrical world, but also amongst human rights circles in Turkey, where so often he spoke up about the imprisonment of dissident writers or the treatment of the Kurds. His play Mountain Language, inspired by the oppression of this minority, perfectly expresses the denial of a people’s voice and the brutal suppression of their fundamental right to freedom of expression. Pinter would have been enraged to learn that another prominent defender of the Kurds, Ragip Zarakolu, who runs the Belge Publishing House in Istanbul, is once again on trial.
In April 2008, while some freedom of expression campaigners welcomed amendments to Article 301 of Turkey’s penal code, which criminalised ‘insulting Turkishness’, others, including Zarakolu, remained sceptical, believing the changes to be merely cosmetic. The same article gained worldwide notoriety when it was used to prosecute Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk in 2005. However, as the recent trials against Zarakolu and other writers and journalists have proved, the law continues to be used to silence debate on certain issues.
Just two months after the amendments, Zarakolu was sentenced to a five-month prison term charged with ‘insulting the State’ for publishing a Turkish translation of London-based author George Jerjian’s book The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled. Legal proceedings had been hanging over the publisher since 2004. Turkey’s sensitivity regarding the mass deportation and systematic killing of what are estimated to have been around a million Armenians by Ottoman troops between 1915 and 1918 is as sensitive an issue as minority rights in Turkey today, and Zarakolu has had to endure numerous court appearances for attempting to publish books on either subject. This time, the sentence was commuted to a fine, but the publisher continues to be hauled before the courts on spurious charges.
In the most recent case against him, Zarakolu is accused of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation, alienating people from the military, and praising crime and criminals’. He is editor-in-chief of the Alternatif newspaper and the charges follow publication of various articles: one by conscientious objector Mehmet Ali Avci entitled ‘I refuse to become a Turkish soldier’; another that refers to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as ‘the organisation fighting for the freedom of Kurdish people’; a report on celebrations in the south-east of Turkey on 15 August entitled ‘Fireworks Everywhere’; and another report entitled ‘The Kurds will turn their faces to the mountains if the political solution fails’, referring to a speech given by an MP from the Democratic Society Party – Turkey’s main Kurdish party.
Zarakolu has been a prominent PEN case for many years. After graduating from college in 1968, he began writing for magazines that focused on issues of social justice in Turkey. From the onset he was committed to freedom of expression and helping an ‘attitude of respect for different thoughts and cultures to become widespread in Turkey’. Following the assumption of power by a military government it was not long before the idealistic journalist was sentenced to three years in prison, accused of involvement with an international communist organisation.
The publishing house he co-founded with his late wife, Ayse Nur, in 1977 has also been the focus of numerous charges brought by the Turkish authorities. Both of them saw their work repeatedly banned. For Turkish writers and intellectuals, the 1990s was an inescapably bleak period and I remember regularly campaigning for the pair during this time, when they were either imprisoned, saw the wholesale confiscation and destruction of their books, or suffered deprivation from heavy fines. In 1995 their office was firebombed by a right-wing extremist group and they were forced to work from a cellar.
During the first hearing that took place on 23 December 2008 in Istanbul’s Beşiktaş High Criminal Court, Zarakolu referred to the current case against him as ‘clear discrimination against the opposition press’. The next hearing is due on 12 March 2009.
Readers may like to write appeals expressing concern at the continued persecution of Ragip Zarakolu, and calling for an end to charges against him and other writers and journalists in Turkey that are in direct denial of their right to freedom of expression, to:
His Excellency Mr Mehmet Yiğit Alpogan
The Turkish Embassy
43 Belgrave Square
London SW1X 8PA
Fax: 020 7393 email@example.com
Update: on 21 November 2008 Burmese poet and comedian Zargana was sentenced to forty-five years’ imprisonment, accused of ‘violating the Electronics Act’, which regulates electronic communications. A week later he received a further fourteen-year prison term for his peaceful opposition activities. Journalist Zaw Thet Hwe was sentenced to nineteen years in prison. Readers are urged to send appeals expressing outrage at their sentences and calling for the release of all those currently detained in Myanmar in violation of Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to His Excellency U Nay Win, Embassy of the Union of Myanmar, Fax: 020 7629 firstname.lastname@example.org