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Turkey: Publisher and Writer Face Imprisonment

Wednesday 31 March 2010 - 1:00am

RAN 28/10 31 March 2010

Publisher Ragip Zarakolu and author Mehmet Güler, on trial in Turkey since May 2009, face prison sentences of up to seven and half years for Güler's novel More Difficult Decisions than Death. Both are accused under article 7/2 of the Anti Terror Law of "spreading propaganda" for the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). A verdict is expected to be given at the next trial hearing, due 10 June. International PEN considers the charges against Zarakolu and Güler to be in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

Ragip Zarakolu, aged 62, is a long time Turkish publisher and human rights activist. He has been subject to many years of harassment, trials and periods of imprisonment since the 1970s for publishing books on issues including minority and human rights. After a military coup in 1971, Zarakolu was among large numbers of writers who were arrested. He served three years in prison for his refusal to abandon his campaign for freedom of thought, striving for an "attitude of respect for different thoughts and cultures to become widespread in Turkey." Since his writings were repeatedly banned in Turkey, Zarakolu began to turn his attention to abuses of human rights by governments in South America and elsewhere. For twenty years, between 1971 and 1991, Zarakolu was banned from travelling outside Turkey. He is featured as one of the 50 emblematic cases in International PEN's Writers in Prison Committee's 50th anniversary campaign Because Writers Speak their Minds: a celebration and a campaign

In 1977 Zarakolu and his wife, Ayse Nur, set up the Belge Publishing House. Since then, Zarakolu has put Turkish censorship laws to the test by translating and publishing controversial books from Armenian and Greek authors into the Turkish language. As a result, Zarakolu has been sentenced to imprisonment several times. Prior to the military coup of September 1980 Belge mostly published academic and theoretical books. After the coup, Belge started to publish a series of books written by political prisoners. Zarakolu's office was firebombed by an extremist rightist group in 1995, forcing it to be housed in a cellar. Zarakolu's staunch belief in freedom of expression, his vocal campaign against book bannings, and his persistence in publishing works that violate Turkey's repressive censorship laws have resulted in a catalog of indictments against him.

Current case
In May 2009 a court case was initiated against Zarakolu for publishing a novel by N. Mehmet Güler. The book, More Difficult Decisions than Death led to charges under article 7/2 of the Anti Terror Law for "spreading propaganda" for the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Three fictional characters, "Siti", "Sabri" and "Siyar" are engaged with PKK activities. In one part of the book a PKK member on trial says "This court has no right to judge me. I fight for freedom. I do not recognise this court". The fictional judge's response and following passages form part of the indictment. The prosecutor states that some parts of the novel evokes sympathy for the PKK in its readers. Güler responds that he believes that one way to tackle problems in Turkey is through literature, saying it is "the best way to deal with social trauma". A hearing on 19 November 2009 saw the prosecutor pointing out that no crime had been committed and called for the two to be released. However, at the next hearing, on 25 March 2010, another prosecutor expressed the opposite view - that the book does provide terrorist propaganda. This led Zarakolu to comment: "When the case was opened, there was a cold strong wind blowing through the country. When our acquittal was suggested in November, the atmosphere was warm and soft. Today a harsh wind is blowing again. I think the atmosphere in this trial reflects that of the country." The trial was adjourned to 10 June 2010 when the verdict may be announced.

Zarakolu founded Demokrat, a newspaper which was banned after the military coup in 1980, and was one of the 98 founders of the Human Rights Association in Turkey. For some time he chaired the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN in Turkey and is the chairperson of the Freedom to Publish Committee of the Turkish Publishers Association. He is also an Honorary Member of nine PEN Centres.

International PEN urges that the court takes into consideration the fact that to convict Zarakolu and Güler as charged would be both a breach of Turkey obligations under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.