Trials against literature in Turkey
By Kjell Olaf Jensen, president of Norwegian PEN
In April this year, a Scandinavian delegation went to Turkey to observe a couple of trials against literature and freedom of expression. According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, which is a Turkish organization, there were 456 such trials in the country during the year 2001.
The delegation mainly went to observe the trial against the Swedish-Kurdish author Mehmed Uzun, who was accused of having violated the Turkish Security Law by committing separatism and instigating to terror in a speech held in front of 6000 listeners in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on the banks of the river Tigris in south-eastern Turkey in January 2000. In this speech, Mr Uzun’s message was that Kurds and Turks should live as brothers and friends in one and the same nation. For this, he risked up to 15 years’ prison.
The delegation consisted of seven Swedish lawyers and publishers, one member of Swedish PEN’s board (the writer Peter Mossige), one member of the Danish Artists’ Council and five members of Norwegian PEN, among them Mehmed Uzun’s Norwegian publisher, one of the country’s best cultural journalists and the writer Thorvald Steen, who also is an internationally recognized expert on Turkey – plus Norwegian PEN’s vice president Kirsti Blom and myself.
We had some days in Istanbul before the first trial we were going to observe, namely the trial against Mehmed Uzun’s Turkish publisher, Mr Hazan Öztoprak from the publishing house Gendas, who was accused of having published a book of interviews with Mr Uzun. Ten passages from the book were found to be in violation of the Security Law; the worst one runs as follows: “I am a Kurd, I come from Turkey. And I am a Scandinavian, I come from Sweden.” This terrible book was forbidden by Turkish authorities during the Book Fair in Frankfurt last October, and both the International Publishers’ Association and German PEN made a scandal about this at the Book Fair.
We took the extra days in Istanbul to make some contacts – we saw the publishers in question, their lawyers, and some key journalists. We also met Mehmed Uzun’s Kurdish publisher, an extremely courageous man by the name Abdullah Keskin who usually has eight or ten charges against him any time, but who was not to appear before the court just now. We saw to it that our presence got as much coverage in the press as possible – of course, only the non-Turkish language newspapers could bring actual articles, but all the same, the authorities should know
that the trials would be watched.
The trial against Mr Öztoprak was conducted before State Security Court No.6 in Besiktas, Istanbul on April 16th. After having seen the impressive crowd of foreign observers in the small court room and called the two witnesses (Mehmed Uzun and the literary critic Ömer Türkes who had written the preface to the book of interviews), which took ten minutes alltogether, the judges declared that the trial was ajourned untill 20th June, to give the prosecutor time to study the case (he had only had six months) and to decide whether he should put charges against Mr Uzun and Mr Türkes as well.
After this very short trial indeed, we left the court and stood a while outside discussing with the national and international press, while people who were accused in other trials arrived in chains in heavily guarded prison trucks from faraway villages and towns.
Next day, we left for Ankara, where we had meetings with the Scandinavian ambassadors to hear what our embassies could do with these trials against literature and freedom of expression. The participants from Norwegian PEN took the responsibility for persuading the Norwegian ambassador, which turned out to be extremely easy – the Embassy having already established a tradition to monitor these trials as far as possible for a small embassy with only five employees. The Swedish ambassador was herself going with us to Diyarbakir to be present at the trial against Mehmed Uzun, since he was a Swedish citizen – just as the Swedish Consul General in Istanbul had been present at the trial against Hazan Öztoprak.
When we arrived at the State Security Court No.4 in Diyarbakir on 19th April, it turned out that the trial would be some three hours delayed, which gave us time to be present at another trial before the Criminal Court of Diyarbakir, against a group of medical doctors – physicians – who were accused of having established a rehabilitation centre for torture victims, without permission. Here, the prosecutor openly expressed his astonishment at the many foreign observers present. The doctors were acquitted; but another charge against them, of having been found in possession of one copy of a magazine which was prohibited not in Turkey, but in Diyarbakir, and of some dubious medicines which had been sent as test material from some pharmaceutical company, was passed on to a higher court.
Then came the trial against Mehmed Uzun, and now the judicia authorities knew in beforehand that this trial would be closely followed by foreign writers, publishers, journalists and embassies. Mr Uzun was allowed to read a 20 minutes’ speech which had been widely circulated in English in beforehand. In his speech, Mr Uzun underlined what he saw as the role of literature, namely to build bridges across conflicts and bring understanding between different peoples all over the world.
After having heard this speech, the prosecutor declared that the whole process was a misunderstanding for which he personally had no responsibility, since it was not he who had taken it up. He thus withdrew the whole charge against Mehmed Uzun.
What decided the judicial authorities to withdraw these charges? Was it Mehmed Uzun’s eminent, peaceful speech? Did an intelligent prosecutor realize the absurdity of the task he had been given? Was it the massive international press campaign(s)? Was it the great number of foreign observers, Swedish ambassador in front, in the court room?
I do not know, but I should wish I did. The title of this conference is “The role of literature in prevention of conflict” – which was also the theme of Mehmed Uzun’s defense speech in Diyarbakir, where his future as a free man was literally at stake. I wish to see a world where literature really can play its role to prevent conflicts; but to reach that stage, it seems to me that we must first prevent conflict-makers from destroying literature, from destroying publishers and from destroying writers.
That is why I am going back to Istanbul the day after tomorrow, to be present in the State Security Court room at the trial against a man whom I have learned to respect, admire and love. It is people like Hazan Öztoprak at the publishing house Gendas who are fighting for the right to freedom of expression, with their own, personal freedom being at stake; it is people like Mr Öztoprak who can teach us what this fight is about. The very least thing we can do is to support them, to show them that they are not alone, and – not least – to show the authorities in countries suppressing the right to freedom of expression that these people are not alone. That is why I shall be present at the State Security Court on the 20th. I have also persuaded Eugene Schoulgin to go with me – which was not at all difficult.
And Turkey alone brought 456 Hazan Öztopraks and Mehmed Uzuns to court only during the year 2001.
I think Bucuresti is one of the best places in Europe to mention these sad affairs, since you know better than most what it is all about.
Welcome to Norwegian PEN
Norwegian PEN is the Norwegian division of International PEN, which was founded in England in 1921. PEN is short for «Poets, Essayists and Novelists» or «Poets, Editors and Novelists». Norwegian PEN was founded in 1922. The purpose of the organization was twofold: firstly to establish an international, literary organization – the only global one one that still exists, secondly to create an organization that could work and fight for authors´ and other writers´ right to freedom of expression. This was prior to international conventions on human rights that surfaced from the 1940s.