Turkish Court Delays Trial of Author

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 17, 2005

ISTANBUL, Dec. 16 -- Acclaimed Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk appeared briefly in a courtroom Friday to face a charge of insulting the country that he has built an international reputation trying to explain. But a judge immediately postponed the trial until Feb. 7 to give the justice minister time to decide whether to proceed.

The delay underscored the role of politics in the case. It also prolonged what European Union delegates and human rights activists say is a deep embarrassment for the Turkish government, which is under pressure to bring its laws into accordance with E.U. standards as it aspires to become a member.

"If there are more cases like this, the negotiation process will come to a halt," said Joost Lagendijk, a member of an E.U. delegation that crowded into the tiny courtroom in downtown Istanbul. "We can't make Turkey another country. Only the Turks can."

While E.U. member states agonized this fall over whether to formally extend membership to Turkey, a country that is 99 percent Muslim, Turks have struggled with reducing the reach of an all-powerful state built on fierce nationalism.

Pamuk's alleged offense, in fact, was telling a Swiss newspaper in February that nationalist orthodoxy keeps some topics taboo in Turkey. "Thirty thousand Kurds were killed here, 1 million Armenians as well. And almost no one talks about it," Pamuk said. "So I do."

The figures referred to the civil war in Turkey's ethnic Kurdish southeast in the 1990s and the massacre of ethnic Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, which independent historians call a genocide. Both topics are sore spots here.

Pamuk's books were burned in one Turkish city after his remarks were reported. Another town banned his works, until it was discovered the local library contained none.

On Friday, under a low, gray sky that evoked huzun -- or the melancholy that Pamuk called the city's essential quality in his latest book, "Istanbul: Memories and the City" -- the scene at the courthouse was hectic. It featured all the elements tugging at this country of 70 million as it stands on the doorstep of Europe.

"Hell to traitors!" nationalist demonstrators chanted in the drizzle.

"Did they just realize he was a great writer when he spoke against us?" asked one of the protesters, Fatma Ozen, puzzled by the crowd of satellite trucks and journalists outside the courthouse.

Inside the building, amid riot police in snug black watch caps, the corridors were jammed with writers, painters and human rights activists who long have struggled in relative obscurity against laws limiting freedom of expression in Turkey.

Hrant Dink, a newspaper editor convicted this fall under the same statute cited against Pamuk, noted that the law was part of a "reformed" penal code passed to accommodate the E.U.

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