The reasons for this mission were two fold: To defend the historian professor Fikret Baskaya and the publisher Ragip Zarakolu by being present during their trials which took place the same day in Ankara and Istanbul. And use these cases as a symbol for all the more than 60 freedom of expression cases which are going on in Turkey at the moment. Despite the Turkish authorities declarations that they want their legislation to come in line with European standards on human rights, the continuance of these trials proves that there is more to be done.
Both Fikret Baskaya and Ragip Zarakolu have been Honorary Members of several of our centres for many years. Both have a long record as freedom of expression fighters in Turkey, both have spent years in prison for their struggle, and both are highly regarded and well known intellectuals inside Turkey as well as internationally.
For more background information see the joint document published by International PEN and International Publishers Assosiation.
The mission was arranged by PEN and IPA (International Publishers Assosiation) with observers from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. All together we were 14 delegates from Canada, England, Holland, Norway, Scotland and Switzerland. Seven monitored the trial of Fikret Baskaya in Ankara. – Seven stayed in Istanbul for the Ragip Zarakolu hearing.
Fikret Baskaya was tried on charges of “insult to the State, State institutions, and the military” under article 159 of the current Penal Code. He could face a three-year sentence for articles he wrote in the early nineties (since republished as a book entitled “Articles against the Current”) After a trial totally dominated by the defence, and introduced by a strong speech by Fikret Baskaya himself, where he accused the judicial authorities in Turkey of letting the criminals go and sentence the victims, he was acquitted.
Ragip Zarakolu was charged with “incitement to racial hatred” under article 312 of the current Penal Code, for an article where he was critical of Turkeys foreign policy on Kurdish issues. The charges carry a two-year sentence.
After a chaotic hearing, where the judge never showed up (the explanation given was that he had no time for the trial because he was on a training program – an explanation given to Ragip Zarakolu, the delegation and the audience after one hour of waiting), an assistant judge who obviously had no knowledge what so ever about the case postponed it until the 12 May.
The Delegations program:
On the first of March the delegation held a press conference at Taksim Hill Hotel. Also present were Turkish PEN, the Turkish Publishers Assosiation and last but not least Sanar Yurdatapan´s organisation FOX who helped us with the practicalities. Here the different members of the delegation gave speeches and statements, and described the reason why we had decided to highlight these two trials. We also declared our dissatisfaction with the new amendments the Turkish Penal Code. (see background doc.) And stated that our organisations could not accept moderations to articles which should be abolished once and for all if Turkey wants to live up to European judicial standards.
On the second of March, after the trial of Fikret Baskaya a press conference was held at the Free University, Institute for Middle East Studies in Ankara, where the delegation welcomed the acquittal of Baskaya, but at the same time stressed the need for further and more substantial amendments to the Turkish Penal Code. We stated that there is a long way still to go for Turkey to live up to European standards on human rights and freedom of expression. We also pointed out the need to end, without any more delay the systematic use of torture which still is reported from several parts of the country.
Eugene Schoulgin, Beate Slydal from Amnesty International and Elisabeth Dyvik from Norwegian PEN then had a meeting with the EU ambassador to Turkey Mr. HansJürg Kretschmer and his assistant Mrs. Sema Kilicer. To the delegates satisfaction it became clear that the general views on the situation and the development in Turkey expressed by us was in line with thos of the EU Ambassador. He stressed the importance not to let the Turkish authorities fall back in old habits just because the EU had agreed to discuss their candidacy. He had registered a tendency of stagnation in the work for reforms, and he also pointed out the importance of the Turkish NGOs, and the old ones in particular, in the work to push the evaluation in the right direction. The government had appointed a number of new bodies to act as a kind of observers in the regions, with a most obscure status of semi non governmental organisations(!) These organisation´s role is obviously to bring back positive reports for use in Turkeys negotiations with EU.
Mr. Kretschmer also agreed in our view that the articles we are concerned about had to be abolished.
After that Eugene Schoulgin had a meeting with Head of Department in the Ministry of Justice Judge Ergin Ergül and Undersecretary Judge Fahri Kasirga. Giving the same views as before judge Ergül pointed out that amendments would follow in a high speed now. He also admitted that the Turkish State had committed a lot of wrong doings up through its history, and that it was high time to get in line with the rest of Europe.
Two concrete new facts came out of this meeting, Judge Ergin Ergül told that from the first of April this year prosecutors could not any more order judges to open cases. The decision would be in the hands of the judges. Second, more than nine thousand prosecutors and judges were at the moment undergoing a special training to learn the way European colleagues conducted their judicial work.
In Istanbul Alexis Krikorian visited the French consul. Unfortunately the result of this meeting was not as positive as the one we had with the EU Commissioner Ambassador Kretschmer. To our astonishment we have to admit that neither he, who represented an EU state, nor the Norwegian Ambassador the delegation met in Ankara, had a very strong stand on the Freedom off Expression issues we were advocating. On the opposite we were warned against getting involved with Turkish organisations that could influence negatively on our credibility in the eyes of the Turkish authorities. Since these organisations all represent a more than twenty year resistance in Turkey, have the highest credibility internationally, and have been our natural partners since the time of the military dictatorship, we have to point out that these warnings were quite remarkable.
The last evening Beate Slydal, Franca Tiberto from Swiss-Italian PEN, Alexis Krikorian and Eugene Schoulgin were invited to a dinner with the Marmara Group in Istanbul. The Marmara Group is a well known and important platform in Turkey concerned with reforms and the image of Turkey seen from abroad. In this Marmara Group we find former and present ministers, high ranking politicians, militaries, businessmen, journalists, scientists, people from left to right. The speaker on this occasion was our old acquaintance Ambassador Kretschmer. Since he had been most rudely attacked the day before by the Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül for his criticism of the development in Turkey, everyone looked forward to his reaction.
He repeated more or less what he had told us in Ankara two days before.
Beate Slydal asked the audience about their opinion on the judicial reforms, but got no answer. Eugene Schoulgin asked Mr. Kretschmer if he was of the opinion that a country which kept so many taboos both about their recent history, and their relations to their minorities, their dead leaders, their official bodies and actual politics could be a member of EU.
I would say the mission was a success. We became visible. Fikret Baskaya was acquitted, although Ragip Zarakolus case remains unsolved. This is not unusual in cases such as his which go on over a long time. He has new trials against him, and much is still to be done. The co-operation with IPA has become a valuable reinforcement in our struggle, and the participation of so many PEN members from so many centres is of importance both for our visibility from outside, and for a more concrete understanding of the nature of missions among the WiP committees.
I would like to end by thanking all those who took part in this mission for their commitment, dedication and active participation.