Turkey: free speech on trial —again

A victory for free speech and historical memory was declared last month when charges were dropped against Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who had dared to invoke the World War I genocide of the Armenians, as well as more recent persecution of the Kurds. But, as we noted at the time, the real victory would not be until the law he was prosecuted under, Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, was overturned. Now, once again, it seems the victory was a Phyrric one as five more writers face charges under the same law. From the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists:

Turkish judge adjourns trial of five journalists amid scuffles
Istanbul, Turkey, February 7, 2006—Scuffles erupted between riot police and Turkish nationalist lawyers at the start of the trial today of five journalists in a freedom of speech case given prominence by Turkey’s European Union application.

After more than two hours of courtroom chaos, the judge adjourned the hearing until April 11 to allow the prosecution time to study a barrage of defense objections to charges stemming from articles that criticized a ban on a university conference about the mass killing of Armenians during World War I, a powder keg issue in Turkey.

Journalists Murat Belge, Haluk Sahin, Erol Katircioglu, and Ismet Berkan of the daily Radikal, and Hasan Cemal of the daily Milliyet were charged in December under Article 288 of the penal code with attempting to influence the outcome of a trial through their writing. All except Berkan also face prosecution under Article 301 for publicly denigrating Turkish identity and the institutions of the Turkish state. If convicted, they could face prison terms of six months to 10 years.

Hundreds of riot police ringed the courthouse in the outlying district of Bagcilar to prevent nationalist demonstrators from entering. Several nationalist lawyers inside the courtroom began shouting as the trial opened and called for all foreigners and EU observers to be ejected. They ignored the judge’s repeated orders to keep quiet and scuffled with police who tried to remove them.

The defendants gave the court written and oral explanations of their articles, which took issue with Turkish court orders blocking a conference to discuss the killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks. Armenians contend that the killings constitute genocide, a characterization that Turkey rejects.

“I used my right to criticize as a journalist,” Cemal, a widely read columnist, told the court.

After the adjournment, Cemal told CPJ that he expected he and his codefendants would eventually be acquitted, noting that Turkey had been making efforts to adopt European law as part of its EU membership bid. An Istanbul court dropped Article 301 charges in January against internationally acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk for remarks about the Armenian killings.

European Member of Parliament Joost Lagendijk of the Netherlands told reporters that if the five are convicted “it will have consequences for the EU accession process.” Lagendijk, who was monitoring the proceeding for the EU, had himself faced similar charges in Turkey for comments about the Turkish military. Turkish prosecutors dropped the case last week.

“Turkey is on the way to removing curbs on the media as it seeks to join the European Union, but cases like this undermine that progress,” Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said from New York. “We urge the court to dismiss all charges against these five journalists when it reconvenes in April.”

CPJ Senior Editor Robert Mahoney monitored the court proceedings in Istanbul. The charges, filed on December 2, 2005, stem from columns published in Radikal and Milliyet that strongly criticized Turkish court rulings banning an academic conference last year on the Armenian massacres. Court orders stopped the conference from taking place at two Istanbul universities, in May and again in September, but organizers held the conference on September 24, 2005, by moving it at the last minute to a third, Biglu University. Three of the five defendants teach at Biglu.

  1. This doesn’t look very promising…
    Especially on the eve of the Pope’s historic visit to Turkey. From Reuters, Feb. 6. I especially like this line:

    “Above all, nothing about entering a place of worship to kill a priest is acceptable,” he said.

    A generous concession.

    Turkey says priest probably killed by lone gunman

    ANKARA – Turkish leaders said on Monday the killing of a Catholic priest appeared to be the work of a lone gunman, but also signalled fears of a possible link with the rage sweeping the Muslim world over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

    Police have issued a sketch of the gunman who shot Andrea Santoro, a 61-year-old Italian, while he was praying in his church on Sunday in the Black Sea city of Trabzon. Turkish state media earlier gave the priest’s surname as Santaro.

    “We strongly condemn this incident… We believe it is the work of one individual. His motive should become clear in due course,” Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters.

    A Vatican embassy spokesman in Ankara quoted eyewitnesses as saying the gunman, believed to be 16 or 17 years old, shouted “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is greatest”, a common Muslim chant) as he shot Santoro dead.

    Violent attacks on Christian clergy are virtually unheard of in Turkey, which views itself as a bridge between mainly Christian Europe and the predominantly Muslim Middle East.

    Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan twinned the shooting with the anger rocking the Muslim world over cartoons published in Denmark and reprinted in other European newspapers lampooning Islam’s Prophet, saying both could be seen as examples of intolerance.

    “(The shooting) is extremely regrettable, especially after the recent developments in Denmark,” NTV commercial television quoted Erdogan as saying.

    “Above all, nothing about entering a place of worship to kill a priest is acceptable,” he said.

    Turkey, with a population of about 68 million, is overwhelmingly Muslim and has a tiny Christian population.

    Pope Benedict expressed his sorrow over Santoro’s death.

    “I share the pain of the entire Church of Rome for the grave loss of such an esteemed and conscientious priest,” the Pope said in a statement. “I hope that his spilt blood becomes a seed of hope to build an authentic brotherhood between people.”

    The Vatican has joined Muslim countries, including Turkey, in condemning the cartoons of the Prophet, saying freedom of speech did not mean freedom to offend a person’s religion.

    Turkey’s non-Muslim clergy, including Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, have also condemned the cartoons, which were first published in a Danish newspaper.

    The Vatican spokesman played down speculation in the Turkish press that the priest may have been a victim of local criminals running a prostitution racket using foreign women.

    “The gunman was a very young man, it seems unlikely he was involved in such business, although Father Andrea did occasionally give help to these women,” the spokesman added.

    1. Murdered priest
      The Catholic AsiaNews has a rather different take on that:

      Ankara (AsiaNews) – Fanatics filled Fr Andrea Santoro’s assassin with (wrong) ideas, titled Turkish daily Vatan, and other Turkish papers agree. They reported today that the young man who shot Father Andrea had met Islamic fundamentalists in an internet café. The man’s father said that he got “his orders via internet