Turkish freedom: a report from the frontline

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
20 February 2006

Turkey is a hinge country for the world's future: geographically bestriding Europe and Asia; bordering Iran, Iraq and the European Union; the historic ruler of the middle east; Muslim, but with a secular state; and a fast-developing democracy of 70 million people with a buoyant economy. But is Turkey a democracy?

Five columnists went on trial on 7 February 2006 in Istanbul's Bagcilar second criminal court – two of them professional journalists, the other three lecturers and writers – charged under Article 301 of Turkey's criminal code, which forbids the "public denigration" of both "Turkishness" and the country's institutions of government.

The streets around the courtroom were cordoned off and rows of heavily-armed riot-police, including a contingent of women in full body-armour, guarded the building's entrance. Some of the men were kitted out for gas attacks, others had dogs. Marksmen were stationed on a balcony across the road and a snowstorm added to the sense of siege.

It was only the latest of a number of such trials. The most notorious has been of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's best-selling national and international novelist. He was charged for saying, in an interview with a Swiss publication in February 2005, that "a million Armenians were killed in these lands" in 1915, and that 30,000 Kurds too had been killed in Turkey (a reference to the brutal war in eastern Anatolia after 1984). Another trial has concerned the Turkish-Armenian Hrant Dink, who was given (and is currently appealing) a six-month suspended sentence for a newspaper article he had written; Dink decribes his experience in his openDemocracy article, "The water finds its crack".

The defendants of 7 February were marginally less prominent figures – though one cartoonist was still able to portray their trial as the sacrifice of the country's intelligentsia. The most famous of the five was Murat Belge, a prolific journalist, critic and historian. His regular contributions to openDemocracy include a far-sighted essay, "Inside the fundamentalist mind", after 9/11; the latest, "The trials of free speech in Turkey", is an invaluable account of the legal and political background of his and his colleagues' cases.

The cases derive from a conference on "Ottoman Armenians During the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy" held in the face of considerable pressure and denunciation at Istanbul's Bilgi University on 24-25 September 2005. The Turkish Union of Lawyers tried through the courts to stop it. The five writers separately criticised this as an abuse of legal process, and were themselves charged under Article 301 of Turkey's criminal code for "denigrating" a Turkish institution, charges which carry a possible two-year jail sentence.

Also in openDemocracy:

Murat Belge, "Turkey – normal at last?" (November 2002)
Murat Belge, "The Turkish refusal"
(May 2003)

Murat Belge, "Between Turkey and Europe: why friendship is welcome" (December 2004)
Murat Belge, "Love me, or leave me? The strange case of Orhan Pamuk" (October 2005)
Gunes Murat Tezcur, "The Armenian shadow over Turkey's democratisation" (October 2005)
Hrant Dink, "The water finds its crack: an Armenian in Turkey" (December 2005)

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The trials of Turkish justice

Murat Belge is a close family friend. I travelled to Istanbul from London to give him moral support and in the hope that an outside presence might serve as protection. Orhan Pamuk's case, which came to court in Istanbul on 16 December 2005 had attracted vigorous international protests, not least from the European Union, which Turkey seeks to join.

After a brief hearing, the case was postponed on a technicality. But as Pamuk left the court amid protests by rightwing nationalists, fighting broke out which the police failed to control. The images of the scuffles, and the news that the windscreen of Pamuk's car had been shattered, created further adverse publicity around the world for the Turkish state and its judicial system. On 22 January 2006 the case was dropped.

The huge security presence this time was aimed at preventing a similar fracas.

Who were the defendants? The youngest (in his early 40s) was Ismet Berkan, the editor of the well-produced daily paper Radikal. Three of the others wrote columns for him: the economist Erol Katircioglu; Haluk Sahin, who had in fact written a "friendly reminder" criticising Orhan Pamuk's interview in the Swiss newspaper; and Murat Belge. The fifth defendant was Hasan Jemal, a distinguished columnist for the Milliyet daily paper and the grandson of Pasha Jemal, one of the most powerful figures in the last days of the Ottoman empire.

The corridor to the court was packed with lawyers, riot police, international observers, press, security, friends and family members. Some had pinned onto their coats small Xeroxed images of Father Andrea Santoro, a Catholic priest who had been shot dead two days earlier in Trabzon, on Turkey's eastern Black Sea coast, by a young fanatic who was said to have shouted Allahu akbar ("God is great") as he ran off.

The modestly-sized courtroom was packed as tight as a rush-hour commuter train. Nearly 200 of us were crammed inside and for the next two-and-a-half hours stood crushed against one another. Towards the end of the hearing, we could hear what for some of us was the ominous chanting of rightwing demonstrators from the street.

The case began with a frontal assault by lawyers of the body responsible for so many of the cases attempting to repress free speech in the country, the Turkish Union of Lawyers.

In political cases in Turkey lawyers can work for no fee and there is no evident limit to the number who may appear in support of one side or another. What was, in effect, a gang of twenty or so lawyers from the union started to shout – denouncing the presence of foreigners, interrupting the judge when he admonished them, and demanding the expulsion of all international observers, who, they claimed, showed the subordination of Turkey to foreign influence. The judge was forced to try and shout them down.

Two of the five defendents leaving the court. Photograph Ahmet DumanliThe defendants mobilised an equivalent number of lawyers. They refrained from bellowing at the judge but the two groups exchanged direct abuse until the judge observed that this was a courtroom, not the national assembly. This raised a laugh.Then, after a warning, he ordered the shouter-in-chief of the rightwing lawyers to be removed. Some of his colleagues scuffled briefly with the twenty or thirty riot-police who poured into the court to ensure that the order was carried out. When it was, they lapsed into silencAfterwards, one of the defence lawyers, a former head of the Istanbul bar association, said that he had never seen such behaviour before. He was evidently unaware that a similar attack had been mounted at Pamuk’s hearing only eight weeks before (see Joan Smith's account of the event for English PEN). It was an audacious, planned attempt to bully the system which no court of law should have tolerated for a moment. Instead, the Turkish Union of Lawyers were given time, and in a sense a dangerous permission, to act as hooligans.

Each defendant spoke briefly to a written statement. Belge told the court that justice and law were the most important things a society could offer – much more than tanks and guns. He found the proceedings shameful, thought they should never have been held and felt no need to defend himself. After he spoke, as after every statement, the judge carefully dictated a public summary of the testimony to a clerk sitting at a computer-screen in front of him. (The process apparently originated in the need to ensure that those involved in court cases who were illiterate could understand what was being recorded; the patient acceptance of this laborious procedure in the courtroom seemed to reflect a sense of appropriate legality that was the other side of the rightwing lawyers' bullying.)

At the end of the defendants' testimony, the judge announced that he would consult the public prosecutor about the defence arguments and postponed the trial to 11 April. The likelihood is that, on that occasion, the charges will be dismissed.

Turkey and democracy

What does this experience say about the condition of free speech, and of democracy, in Turkey? What seemed plain in that Istanbul courtroom is that there is a battle between two Turkeys. One is lively, cosmopolitan, growing in wealth, feels humiliated by the trials and wants to see an end to the influence of militaristic nationalism. Its patriotism seeks an enhanced place for Turkey in the world through membership of the European Union.

The other draws upon an incendiary mix which is in the Turkish air: of rightwing (even fascist) rage, nationalist opportunism and Islamic fundamentalism. It is fuelled economically by very high unemployment and politically by the polarisation of sentiments now sweeping the region. It seeks a "greater Turkey".

The paradox, as Murat Belge himself has argued, is that Turkey's conservative modernisation is taking place under the leadership of the moderate Islamist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his foreign minister Abdullah Gul. Their political project has some echoes of the desire of people in the former Soviet bloc to see the "normalisation" of their own countries at the end of the cold war.

Strong popular opposition in Turkey to the United States-led war in Iraq in 2003 prevented America from using Turkey as an invasion base drew partly on such modern European sentiment. However, it also fed upon the kind of virulent nationalism embodied in the glossy political melodrama Valley of the Wolves, currently breaking all Turkey's box-office records as it heads towards 5 million viewers in its first month of release.

The impulse for the film, at $10 million the most expensive in Turkish cinema history, was sparked by an incident in July 2003 when US troops briefly arrested and blindfolded eleven Turkish special forces operating near the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya in northern Iraq. It is a graphic celebration of Turkish heroism and an exposure of American misdeeds, including a gruesomely-portrayed airstrike on a wedding in Iraq.

Background sources on the trial of Murat Belge and colleagues:

An English PEN petition by writers in Britain on behalf of the accused columnists
Amnesty International's publicity about the case
Ian Traynor's report in the Guardian
Reporters without Borders, 2005 report on Turkey
Bilgi University conference in September 2005 about the Armenians under the Ottoman empire

If Iraq were to fragment and an independent Kurdistan emerge, or if the United States attacks Iran, then the kind of Turkish militarism celebrated in the film might gain the upper hand. Valley of the Wolves can be seen as preparing the ground for this possibility. Its rightwing nationalism draws some of its roots and sentiments from Kemal Atatürk's 1920s secular "revolution from above". Atatürk, the architect of the Turkish republic, forced modernisation on the country, abolished the veil and the fez and romanised the country's script. Just as the architecture of his mausoleum in Ankara attests to the Turkish state's "Stalinist" character, the anger of the country's nationalist right today contains the potential for a Putin-style authoritarianism.

Turkey is capable of defeating such threats. But the courtroom confrontations in Istanbul vividly confirm the importance of a civil society that believes in law as the foundation of democracy, and an independent system of government which can hold the state and leaders to account.

A United States that has become less respectful of the law – with the Republican intimidation of the Florida recount in 2000, the Supreme Court decision to stop that recount, Guantànamo and Abu Ghraib – will find it harder to persuade the Turkish political class (or its equivalents around the world) that it should behave differently. Those who share the values of Turkey's democrats and believers in free speech on trial in Istanbul must hope that Turkey's political leaders stick to the norms they have begun to develop, and dismiss the limitations on basic freedom which the lawyers' union and its supporters are trying to impose.

If they fail, it is not just freedom of speech in Turkey that will suffer. The hopes for democracy in the middle east and Iran will sharply diminish, too. If they win, then a significant part of the Muslim world will enjoy a fundamentally democratic, law-based country that will be an example to others.

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