A string of high-profile, freedom-of-expression court cases in Turkey is raising questions about the country's implementation of parliamentary-approved legal reforms. The cases have also provoked criticism from international human rights groups and the European Union, which Turkey is seeking to join.
The most visible of these cases is that of renowned novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose trial for denigrating "Turkishness" and the country's military and government opened on December 16. The trial was adjourned only minutes after it began after the presiding judge said that the prosecution needed Ministry of Justice permission to proceed. Pamuk's trial, which is tentatively scheduled to resume February 7, stems from an interview he gave earlier this year to a Swiss magazine in which he said that 1 million Armenian were killed in Turkey during World War One and 30,000 Kurds in the last few decades. The writer could face up to four years in prison if convicted.
More recently, five prominent journalists were indicted in Istanbul after they wrote articles criticizing a Turkish court's September decision to put a stop to an academic conference that was to discuss events concerning Armenians in 1915. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Armenian government today maintains that the mass killings of Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire constituted genocide. The Turkish government steadfastly rejects the genocide claim. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Publisher Fatih Tas was recently sentenced to six months in prison for printing the translation of an American book that detailed the activities of Turkish paramilitary forces during the conflict with Kurdish separatist militants in the 1980's and 90's. Numerous other writers and publishers have also had court cases opened against them -- most of them charged under the Turkish penal code's article 301, a vaguely worded law which regulates a wide range of acts that could be considered as an "insult" to Turkey or its state institutions.
For many Turks, the new cases are a disturbing step backwards. The Turkish parliament had passed a new penal code in 2004 that incorporated many legal reforms demanded by the EU as a prerequisite for opening membership negotiations with Ankara. Turkish law had previously enshrined state order over individual rights, and there was hope that the new code would reverse place greater emphasis on the individual
But Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the German Marshall Fund's Turkey office, says Turkey's judiciary considered the most conservative element of the country's bureaucracy is showing its resistance to the reform effort by proceeding with these freedom-of-speech cases. "The judiciary is a sector that has been relatively untouched throughout this [EU-related] reform process, and interpretation of the law is increasingly becoming an issue," Kiniklioglu says. "You see increasing comments that we need new judges, and we need to train them to interpret the law in a way to fits our EU aspirations."
"I think there will be moves to do something about the judiciary and especially some of these laws that deal with vague concepts, like Turkishness," Kiniklioglu added.
Observers in Istanbul say that while judicial reform and training is necessary, the recent freedom-of-expression cases are a reflection of the country's deepening debate over the merits of EU membership. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Those supportive of EU membership want the cases dropped. Nationalists, meanwhile, are generally in favor of prosecution. They tend to be wary of the EU, fearing that membership could threaten Turkey's secular system and its territorial integrity.
"These cases are an example of the nationalists using the judiciary system and creating problems for the government in order to prevent the process of accession to the European Union," says Etyen Mahcupyan, domestic policy director at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation, an Istanbul-based think tank. "It is a reaction to the whole reform process."
Says Kiniklioglu: "Anyone who is reading the mood these days in Turkey sees that there is a strengthening of the nationalists, a sort of revanchism. The secular ultra-nationalists were waiting for a moment to strike back." So far, the cases don't seem to have put a dent in Turkey-EU relations, or to have directly influenced accession negotiations, which have yet to start in earnest. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At the same time, Olli Rehn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, has expressed his "serious concern" about the cases, and the EU parliament said it intended to send observers to monitor the Pamuk trial.
A European diplomat based in Ankara said the various freedom-of-expression cases represent what he sees as the most prominent deviation so far from the reform course that Turkey has adhered to over the last few years. "[The judiciary's] actions are clearly in opposition to the European expectation of political reforms in Turkey and reforms regarding freedom of expression," the diplomat says. "There is a European expectation that these cases will be thrown out of court."
Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also issued statements strongly criticizing the Turkish judiciary's actions and asking that the cases against Pamuk and others be dropped. Similar cases have in the past resulted in acquittals or suspended sentences, but the Marshall Fund's Kiniklioglu says that even if nothing comes out of these cases, damage has already been done to Turkey in the court of public opinion, especially in Europe, where there already exists strong popular opposition in many countries to the notion of Turkish membership in the EU.
"Turkey has been portrayed as a country that puts its most prominent writer in court for what he has said," Kiniklioglu said. "Turkey's reputation continues to be eroded by these cases."
Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.