Criminalization of knowledge

Criminalization of knowledge
Jørgen Lorentzen , President Norwegian Non-Fiction Writers and Translators Association
William Nygaard, President, Norwegian PEN

Istanbul, 21 November

«I have only given a lecture in quantum physics», Celal tells the judge. «How can you make it an offense? You are criminalizing knowledge and science», he points out, not comprehending what he has become a part of.

We have just been present at one of Turkey’s many mass-trials against writers in the recent past.  204 writers and intellectuals, young and old, women and men with very different backgrounds, are seated at the indictment bench. Some are professors at the university, some are students, others can hardly write, yet they are charged with having written things they can barely understand.

Celal is one of them. He is in his twenties and graduated as engineer with an interest in quantum physics. He is looking for work, while hoping to qualify for future research. He therefore accepts to lecture about quantum physics for the party BDP´s «Academy», offering free knowledge to people who are in some way affiliated with the party. And here lies the problem. BDP, the Peace and Freedom Party is a party with ties to the Kurdish movement. Fully legal and with representatives in Parliament. Still, the 204 on trial, are accused of their affiliation with or work for the BDP. The prosecutor believes that they encourage terrorism and support to the PKK .

Celals own defense is low-key and simple. He asks:  How can two legal activities become one illegal. To lecture on quantum physics, and to support a legal party is legal, how can this be illegal?

The trial takes place in a hall as big as an indoor soccer hall adjacent to the notorious Silivri prison, one and a half hours drive outside Istanbul. Together with the Norwegian observers,  a dozen friends or family are present. In the stall in front of us the defendants who are not imprisoned sits, and further down is the vast majority – those still in jail. Most defendants, including Celal, have served two years in prison without charge or trial.   They were all arrested and imprisoned for their work for the BDP .

After Celal a fifty year old Kurd takes the floor.  He has done volunteer work for the party without being a member. He has a wife and four children in his home village,  and he would have liked to be with them. Instead, he must spend his time on something as absurd as to defend himself against accusations of incitement to terrorism, because he had campaigning material in his home. He is accused of having written a report he can barely read. The madness has no limits .

Thus it continues, with one case more absurd than the other. No real evidence, no witnesses, nothing but ordinary political activity and a shameful state prosecutor. We hardly know whether to laugh or cry. We are witnessing a «legal theater».

This current trial takes place the day after Prime Minister Erdogan´s meeting in Diyarbakir – the «capital» of the Kurdish part of Turkey –  with the head of Iraqi Kurdistan, discussing freedom and cooperation between the Turks and the Kurds. This is what makes Turkish politics so incomprehensible. It is paradoxical and schizophrenic . Even Turks are struggling to understand what is happening and, more importantly, why.

Busra Ersanli , Professor of Political Science at Marmara University in Istanbul, puts it simple: «First, the Government is creating hope, thereby creating the votes, then they imprison whomever they want.»  Busra visited Norway in October and told us about the situation for Turkish writers. Today she stands in the stall,  indicted for her research. Ten years of research notes about the political situation in Turkey, including interviews with Kurds, makes her a possible terrorist. She arrives at the trial with us, but does not know if she will be able to return.

«I can get ten years for my notes, but that’s not the worst», she says . «The worst thing is that, in the stall in front of me, are several of my students charged with attending my lectures.»

Although we are witnessing a parody, we know that what happens inflicts tremendous pain on individuals and their families. These are ordinary people like you and I, who are imprisoned for writing or for their participation in democracy. Recently, six journalists were sentenced to a total of 3,000 years in prison for writing in a communist newspaper.

Turkey has a very important position in a global context, also as a NATO country. We cannot allow a development taking a neofascistic direction.  We have an obligation as writer´s organizations to support our writer friends.  But the Norwegian government also has a comittment to follow up its NATO-partner Turkey in order to adress the most basic democratic rights, such as freedom of speech.

This article was printed in the Norwegian daily VG on 23rd November 2013