Turkey for beginners is filled with endless surprises. One, which you won't find in the travel guides, is well-known citizens' participation in acts of civil disobedience. These are people who do not allow their respectable status to deter them from being brought to trial for violating the law (alongside Kurds, Armenians and left-wing activists). Isn't it inevitable that a law meant to suppress will be violated? Is this not a civic duty when the law perpetuates privileges?
The daring of these citizens obviously has to be weighed against the fact that Turkey is (still) interested in joining the European Union and therefore takes the EU's positions into account. Sometimes those who defy the regime petition the European Court of Human Rights against the Turkish authorities. Submitting such a petition, however, did not protect the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. He was murdered in January 2007 - after enduring a defamation campaign, receiving threats and being tried for "insulting Turkishness."
A month ago, the European court ruled that the Turkish authorities had not done enough to protect his life and that their investigation into his murder had not been serious. The court ordered the government to pay the murdered man's family a fine (which was then donated to an organization that promotes equal opportunities in education).
On the evening of Friday, October 8, a small demonstration disturbed the shoppers and partygoers on Istanbul's Istiklal Avenue. An acquaintance who was accompanying me explained that the demonstration's organizers - a coalition of left-wing groups - were demanding the release from jail of all terminally ill prisoners. This now-regular demonstration was launched in the wake of what happened to Guler Zere, a woman of Kurdish origin sentenced 15 years ago to 34 years' imprisonment due to her activities on behalf of a small left-wing organization. In November 2009, following a public campaign that included a petition to the European court, she was pardoned by Turkish President Abdullah Gul. Zere died in May of this year.
Another demonstration had taken place on Istiklal a short while earlier that Friday. Women's organizations protested the acquittal of a group of men charged with the rape of a 12-year-old girl. The reason for the acquittal? The sex had been consensual. The following day, yet another demonstration was held there - the regular weekly demonstration of "Saturday mothers," women demanding that those responsible for the disappearance (or murder) of dozens of Kurdish activists be brought to trial.
A variety of clauses in Turkish law restrict freedom of expression, and could have been employed to suppress these demonstrations. The fact that they are not being used could perhaps be connected to an initiative that dates back 15 years.
'And that was fun'
In 1995, the Turkish writer Yasar Kemal was tried in the state security tribunal for an article he'd published in the German newspaper Der Spiegel. Immediately after that, 1,080 Turkish citizens added their names to the list of publishers of a book that included 10 texts which had been banned from publication, including one written by Kemal. Representatives of these "publishers" then reported to the security court's prosecutor in the tribunal, saying they'd committed a crime. The "publishers" formed a long line outside the prosecutor's office, demanding they be taken to court. They succeeded and cases were opened against 185 of them.
"And that was fun," says the musician Sanar Yurdatapan, who initiated the protest. (Yurdatapan himself served a two-month prison sentence after publicly repeating the refusal statement of an imprisoned conscientious objector.)
For every banned text whose writer was imprisoned, Yurdatapan enlisted the aid of hundreds of partners to publish the same forbidden words for a second time - secular citizens, Muslims, writers, actors, people of Turkish and Kurdish and Armenian descent. The signatories would then appear at the prosecutor's office and report their crime. Over the course of a decade, some 80,000 people added their names to the publication of 48 "forbidden" booklets and seven "forbidden" books, and demanded they be put on trial. One can only imagine the confusion and anger within the swamped legal system that eventually became blocked.
The prosecution has since ceased indicting people in such cases. Those who were suspected of violating the law but were never prosecuted, appealed and asked that the law be upheld. The appeals authorities informed them that the prosecution had the right not to indict. Now that the system has invented ways to circumvent the protesters, Yurdatapan and his colleagues are working on new ways to challenge them.
A week ago, the seventh symposium on "The Initiative for Freedom of Expression," founded by Yurdatapan, was held in Istanbul. Eleven journalists who had been tried for news items they'd published shared their experiences. Among them was Nedim Sener, who published a book about an investigation he carried out into Dink's murder.
Tried but not jailed
According to the Turkish BIA organization for freedom of the press, 323 people were tried in 2009 on various charges related to restrictions on freedom of expression, 123 of them journalists. Today, however, even if they are found guilty, the authorities take care not to jail them.
The American linguist Noam Chomsky, who was also invited to the conference, listened to all the other speakers for two days. During his lecture, which closed the symposium, he voiced a great deal of criticism about Turkish governments, including the present one. He spoke about how American aid to Turkey was being used to fund the bloody repression of the Kurds and stated that the more a people's demands for rights are repressed, the more it triggers violent actions.
A considerable part of Chomsky's lecture was devoted to providing exact details on human rights violations in Turkey. He also mentioned the trial expected to open today - of 151 Kurdish political activists accused of membership in a terrorist organization.
But neither his criticism, which had been expected, nor the subversive forum in which it was delivered, led the Turkish Interior Ministry to prevent him from entering the country.
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