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Media Watch 2005

13 March 2005
Source: Sunday Herald
Author: Jean Rafferty
Comment: The following article appeared in the Sunday Herald of Scotland on 13 March 2005.
Tortured minds
"For a government which desperately wants to join the European Union, the Turks have an unfortunate penchant for arresting their political opponents. It doesn’t take much to put you on the wrong side of the law here. One of the charges against Ragip Zarakolu is of insulting the memory of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, who died in 1938. In mature democracies such as our own, where Blair-baiting and royalty-ribbing are the media’s favourite bloodsports, half the nation’s press would be in Pentonville if such a charge existed."

The fluidity in Beyoglu No 2 criminal court in Istanbul borders on chaos. The judge is away training for the introduction of the Turkish penal code, his deputy is sick, and it seems nobody wants to take on the case of dissident writer and publisher, Ragip Zarakolu. Why would they? There is the Turkish government to answer to if you come up with the wrong verdict, and world opinion to contend with, in the shape of eight international observers, a chap from the British Consulate, two German cameramen and assorted supporters and reporters clogging up the corridors. Not to mention the wider opinion they represent. For a government which desperately wants to join the European Union, the Turks have an unfortunate penchant for arresting their political opponents. It doesn’t take much to put you on the wrong side of the law here. One of the charges against Ragip Zarakolu is of insulting the memory of Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state, who died in 1938. In mature democracies such as our own, where Blair-baiting and royalty-ribbing are the media’s favourite bloodsports, half the nation’s press would be in Pentonville if such a charge existed.

“Can you imagine if there was a law like that about Churchill?” asks Alexis Krikorian of the International Publishers Association (IPA).

We are in Istanbul to see Zarakolu tried for instigating racial hatred “in a way dangerous for public security”. He has dared to suggest that the Kurdish people in Iraq might have the right to determine their own fate.

On this same day in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Professor Fikret Baskaya is also standing trial for accusing Turkey of being a “torture state” in a book written initially in the early 1990s and reprinted in 2003. A team of international observers is watching his trial too.

Zarakolu’s article in a radical daily newspaper criticised the Turkish government for suggesting that the Iraqi Kurds’ desire to form a state was justification for the war. In the end the government refused to support the war, which makes this whole process somewhat surreal. Zarakolu is now in court for a political position that the government itself supports.

A brave judge is eventually prevailed upon to hear the case and those who can squash into the small courtroom. Its wood veneer-panelled walls are reminscent of council houses in Glasgow’s east end, and there is none of the pomp of a British court – nor any of the jury. Judge and prosecutor sit together under a portrait of Ataturk . They wear cheap-looking duster coats with red stand-up collars; the defence lawyer’s collar is green and maroon. They could be janitors from opposing high schools.

But for all their utilitarian appearance, the Turkish courts are far more deadly in approach than our own. There are currently 60 writers facing trial there, including Austrian journalist, Sandra Bakutz, who simply went to Turkey in February to cover the trial of 100 left-wing activists. She is charged with membership of a banned organisation and could face up to 15 years in prison. Other “criminals” include cartoonist Musa Kart, whose caricature of the Turkish prime minister with a cat’s head earned him a 5000 lira fine.

It is hard not to see the proceedings in Beyoglu’s court as a caricature of the law. The judge clearly knows nothing about the case and has to be given all the details. Ragip Zarakolu stands alone in the dock and reads a prepared speech. “Being against a war can never be classed as a crime. Criticising genocide can never be a crime ... I demand acquittal.”

Instead, he is offered postponement until May, even though his defence lawyer points out that under the new penal code such a charge could no longer be brought then. As the code comes in on April Fools’ Day, perhaps the judge is wise not to accept that argument. It turns out that Zarakolu’s co-defendant, the newspaper’s editor, should have been in the dock with him, but with 300 charges outstanding against him he’s had the good sense to abscond to Switzerland.

“It’s Kafkaesque,” says Zarakolu. “Just harassment. It’s like our story of the wolf and the lamb at the riverside. The wolf says, ‘I will eat you. You are making my water dirty.’ The lamb replies, ‘That’s impossible. You are upstream of me. It is only you who could dirty my water.’ The wolf says, ‘It's not important. I want to eat you’.”

Ragip Zarakolu has spent a total of two years in prison, some of it in isolation. His publishing house has been firebombed; he has had constant financial struggles, but still he carries on, not just writing his own articles but publishing and distributing radical literature by others.

He was born in 1948 into the family of a high-ranking bureaucrat, an intellectual whose liberal-mindedness – and membership of the democratic party – led to his being sent away from Istanbul and into the wilds of Anatolia. It was a form of banishment, a probationary period to ensure his loyalty. The state-owned mansions that the family lived in clearly provided only limited security.

In 1968, Turkey followed the student protest movement of most of the Western world. Ragip too listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and took part in sit-ins, but unlike many of his European and American contemporaries, he never settled for Coca-Cola consumerism. In 1977, he and his wife Ayse set up a publishing house to print the works of independent thinkers. Their range included classic political theorists such as Tom Paine and John Stuart Mill. They often used foreign writers to say the things Turkish writers could not.

In the 1980s, after the military coup by General Kenan Evren, the couple began publishing works by people who had been in prison. “They were writing their poetry on little pieces of paper, which they sent secretly, sewn into shirts and other things. Nearly half a million were imprisoned in five years. A generation of university students stayed there a long time. My wife and I thought it was very important to get their voices to the outside. The military authorities thought all the younger generation were terrorists but we wanted to show their culture. We published poetry, novels, stories, reportage. Some of them won awards.”

And some of them were sentenced to death. Turkey takes the written word very seriously. Zarakolu and his wife were watched the whole time, their phones tapped. Many other publishers couldn’t take the pressure. They themselves closed their own publishing houses and bookshops. Some people even burned books in their own homes. In the first half of 2004 alone, 15 books were banned.

The Zarakolus did everything openly. Ragip was arrested in 1982; Ayse two years later. She was tortured. During Ragip’s first prison term, in 1973, he had learned what that meant through the stories of fellow-prisoners. “They were hanging people by their hands, using electric shocks, beating people on the soles of their feet. They also tied people to the bed, making them stay there a week without going to the toilet .”

During that period, Ragip Zarakolu collated the information he received into a book, which was published in Belgium. This time around he could only support his wife. Ayse was a remarkable woman who was tried many times and won many humanitarian awards . In 1984, she was arrested because she had given a job to a student who was wanted by the police. They tortured her to find out where he was. She refused to tell them – he was hiding in her mother’s house. “She was a very courageous woman,” says Ragip. “She always managed not to go into depression or helplessness. She felt good because she could do something against power. She felt solidarity with suffering people.”

In 2002, Ayse died of cancer. Her husband was devastated, unable to speak at her funeral. “I lost half of my existence,” he says. “We shared everything.” Ayse’s coffin was carried by a group of Kurdish women, who approached Zarakolu and asked if they could do so.

The “Kurdish question” is one of the country’s most contentious issues. State repression of the 12 million-strong Kurdish population’s language and culture resulted in bloody civil war during the 1980s and 1990s . Both Zarakolus had spoken out openly about human rights abuses, and about the genocide of a million Armenians from 1915 till the establishment of the Turkish state in 1923. “Everywhere men carry the coffins,” says Ragip. “But the women said, ‘She gave a very important struggle for us.’ The Kurdish women carried her coffin a long way. It was a very hard burden.”

Moved by their gesture, the Zarakolus’ older son, Deniz, made an emotional speech at the graveside. “I think Kurdish women will be free some day,” he said. “And they will not forget my mother.”

In Turkey, 40 days is the traditional period of mourning. The anti-terror team waited 40 days after Deniz spoke out; then they came to the family home and took him away for interrogation. H e had said the unforgivable: that Kurdish people might one day be free.

Deniz Zarakolu was acquitted only after legal reforms were introduced. In recent years, in its bid to make itself acceptable to Europe, Turkey has been making piecemeal amendments to its laws. These do not impress the international observers who came to Istanbul.

“What good is a law if it’s not implemented?” asks Alexis Krikorian of IPA. “In December Ragip Zarakolu was acquitted before the State Security Court. As soon as he was acquitted he was charged again. That’s why we’re back again.”

“Turkey keeps saying, ‘We’re a young nation. We need time.’ But they’ve had a lot of time,” says Eugene Schoulgin of International PEN, the worldwide writers’ organisation.

The irony is that many observers believe human rights are just an excuse for the major European nations to keep Turkey out of the European Union . “They can’t let Turkey in,” insists Professor Hasan Unal of Ankara’s Bilkent University. “It’s too big, too alien. Once you let Turkey in you’ll be moving your borders to Iran and Iraq. They should keep Turkey as a buffer state.”

By the year 2020, Turkey’s population, now 72 million and growing at a rate of one million a year, would be the biggest in Europe, giving the country unprecedented influence. Would France and Germany countenance this? Behind closed doors the diplomatic minuet goes on. Last Sunday there were alarming scenes of police brutality in Istanbul during a demonstration for International Women’s Day. Masked police arrested 57 people but it was thei r behaviour that was questioned in the world’s press.

When Europe’s ministers met the Turkish foreign minister in Ankara on Monday he assured them that the police would be investigated. They assured him they were sure that they would. It was cosy, stately if not statesmanlike, and utterly impenetrable. “They’re melting all the criticisms into some kind of diplomatic mish-mash,” says Eugene Schoulgin of International PEN. “It makes it impossible to know what goes on behind the curtains. The public will never know. That’s what worries writers and publishers.”

While in Istanbul, Schoulgin attended a dinner for the European Ambassador, Hansjoerg Kretschmer, thrown by the Marmara group, a Turkish association including 200 important politicians, academics, businessmen, generals, journalists. There were speeches and compliments and empty formalities . Only at the end, did Schoulgin ask how it was possible for the EU to accept a country with so many taboos, a country which will accept no criticism of its policies on Armenians, Kurds, the military, Cyprus or even its founder, Kemal Ataturk.

He got no real answers. Afterwards, many people said that he shouldn’t ask such questions. “I said, ‘I have a feeling I stepped on everyone’s toes at once.’ I laughed and they laughed too, but they didn’t like it.”

In Ankara, Professor Fikret Baskaya was acquitted. Many observers thought the verdict had been decided before a word was said. But in Istanbul Ragip Zarakolu has a further trial pending, on Wednesday, and another book on the Armenian genocide coming out shortly. As it coincides with the 90th anniversary, he does not expect publication to go unnoticed.

Zarakolu is a generous-hearted man, a man who loves people, music, laughter and travel. A man of inexplicable, ineradicable optimism. But on one issue he is as rigid and inflexible as his opponents: “Whether it’s a member of the European Community or not, Turkey must reform. The citizens of Turkey demand their rights.”

Jean Rafferty went to Istanbul as a representative of Scottish PEN, in conjunction with English PEN."