Saturday, December 10, 2005

Author the Turks tried gag refuses to rewrite history

The Times December 10, 2005

From Suna Erdem in Istanbul

DAYS before he goes on trial for publicly discussing his country's slaughter of a million Armenians by Ottoman Turks, Orhan Pamuk, the most prominent Turkish writer, sounds anything but repentant.

The Turkish Government is afraid to stand up to a nationalist old guard, he told The Times. It is concealing information from its people. It is making only cosmetic reforms of repressive laws to win membership of the European Union.

He said: "I am a writer. It is humiliating to live in a country where this subject [the Armenian massacre of 1915-17] is a taboo and cannot be discussed."

Mr Pamuk's defiance will not play well in Ankara. His trial, which opens in Istanbul next Friday, has become an acute embarrassment for the Government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His conviction would play into the hands of countries, such as France and Germany, that oppose Turkish membership of the EU. Hundreds of supporters are expected to provide fodder for European television crews by demonstrating outside the court.

Mr Pamuk's alleged crime was to tell a Swiss newspaper this year that "a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and no one but me dares to talk about it" — a reference not only to the Armenian slaughter but also to the two-decades-old conflict in southeast Turkey between Kurdish insurgents and the army.

The Turkish press wrongly reported that he had used the word genocide. He received death threats and, in August, a formal charge for "publicly denigrating Turkish identity", for which, if convicted, he faces up to three years in prison. The official Turkish line is that hundreds of thousands of Armenians as well as Turks died in internecine fighting.

Mr Pamuk, a youthful 53, sounds far from contrite as he sits in his flat in a bohemian area of Istanbul with fine views of the Bosphorus. It was time that his country debated taboo issues such as the Armenian slaughter, he said. "This information is being hidden from the Turkish
people and that isn't good."

He picked his words carefully, in view of his imminent trial, but insisted that Turkey needed to permit freedom of speech if it was to be fit for EU membership. For him the issue is not the accuracy of what he said about the killings — "I'm no expert," he said — but his right to say it.

He said that Mr Erdogan's Government had done much to prepare the country for EU membership but had failed to ensure that a "nationalist, oppressive" old guard — strongly represented in the judiciary — complied with its reforms. "I think they have been too cautious," he said. "Although Turkey has made various 'reforms'
concerning freedom of expression, sometimes it seems that these have been made for show and not out of conviction."

Article 301, the law under which Mr Pamuk will be tried, is a case in point, and he listed several other writers it has snared. He said: "Yes, on paper and if you look at the atmosphere in the country, there is some relaxation with regards freedom of expression. But it is almost impressive quite how busy the route still is that takes writers to court or punishes them in jail."

He was unimpressed by the official line that the judiciary is independent and beyond the reach of politicians. He said: "The first duty of a government that is to carry Turkey into Europe is to defend the freedom of expression of its citizens, not that of its judges and prosecutors."

He also accused the Government of acting only after cases such as his own had run their course and Europe reacted negatively. That made writers pawns in the struggle to modernise and join the EU. He said: "Making reforms in the name of freedom of expression should not be subject to political bargaining."

Mr Pamuk has grown tired of his role as an international poster boy for free speech. "I'm really keen to return to my desk," he said. But he acknowledged that he does sometimes bring it on himself. "I suppose saying that one million Armenians were killed was a rather political thing to do."

  • At the start of the First World War the Ottoman Empire began the deportation of Armenians
  • The Ottomans suspected that the Armenians sympathised with their enemy, Russia
  • Most Armenians were allegedly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to present-day Syria. Many were killed or died of hunger
  • Estimates of the number of dead vary from 600,000 to 1.5 million
  • Turkey has always denied genocide, claiming that the deaths were war casualties