Turkish Court Delays Trial of Author
Free Speech Case May Complicate Effort to Join E.U.

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.

"Turkey's door to democracy is opening and closing, opening and closing," Dink said. "And this is not good. Eventually you'll break the door!"

Advocates blamed the government of the Justice and Development Party for allowing the prosecution to proceed. When the charges were filed in August, senior party officials had called it the misguided act of a lone prosecutor.

Yet when a technicality put the case in the hands of Justice Minister Cemil Cicek this week, he took no action, except to ask reporters if they had read "Snow," Pamuk's 2002 novel exploring the tensions between Turkey's rigorously secular military establishment and the appeal of political Islam.

On Friday, Cicek endorsed the judge's delay and blamed the news media for the fuss surrounding it.

"It is the press who had made it the way it is. First you wrote headlines -- 'He sold out the country' -- and now you say it is very important for the E.U.," Cicek told the state news agency.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodgan complained that Pamuk's prosecution received more international attention than his own jailing in 1998 for violating a Turkish law limiting the role of Islam in politics.

"It's a bad day for Turkey," said Rebecca Tinsley of Human Rights Watch, the watchdog group based in New York. "They failed the test."

Pamuk, 53, made no comment as he left the courthouse in a hail of eggs chucked by nationalists, one of whom threw himself on the windshield of the van edging the novelist through the surge of cameramen. A few hours later, Pamuk released a statement through his attorneys.

"Mr. Judge called. We came to the court," he said in the statement. "Unfortunately, the file was in the mail."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company