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Freedom of speech on trial

9 January 2006

The trial of the distinguished Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk has raised fundamental issues relating to writers' freedom of speech in a frightening instance of nationalism run riot and embodied in law. What Pamuk, internationally the best-known Turkish writer of his generation, has dared to do is to challenge the state through referring to a dark episode in Turkish history, which the government has never admitted to. In February last year he commented in a Swiss newspaper that '30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it.'

Pamuk was right about nobody daring to talk about it. He has fallen foul of Article 301 of the new Turkish Penal Code, which makes it a crime to insult Turkishness. Because the Armenian massacre has never been publicly acknowledged by the Turkish government, references to it have now become in effect a criminal offence. Ultra-conservatives who do not want Turkey to move towards the West are baying for his blood and the court hearings were disrupted by verbal abuse and violence.

In a very real way, Turkey's future may depend on how it deals with this issue. There are plenty of people who feel that a country which will try its writers for acknowledging the historical truth should not become part of the European Union. But the wider issue is that of freedom of speech as embodied in the struggle of one brave writer to make his country face the truth about the past. We can only hope that the Ministry of Justice, to which the case has been referred, will act against the rising tide of xenophobia; that Paumk will escape the three year sentence in a Turkish jail with which he is threatened; and that Article 301 will be repealed, allowing Turkish writers the freedom of expression that is so important for all writers.