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Freedom of Expression Under Threat in Turkey


After decades of knocking on Europe's door, Turkey officially launched membership negotiations with the European Union on October 3. But a string of recent cases launched against prominent Turkish authors and journalists, mainly over their views on the mass slaughter of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire, has refocused attention on Turkey's human rights record. And EU officials and rights groups warn that continuing prosecution of Turkish citizens for the non-violent expression of their views remains a big obstacle to Turkey's membership.

The phones ring incessantly in Hrant Dink's office these days. Mr. Dink, an ethnic Armenian, is the publisher of the weekly newspaper Agos that serves Turkey's small Armenian community. He says the calls are from citizens expressing sympathy over his plight. Mr. Dink was handed a suspended six-month sentence earlier this month on charges of insulting the Turkish people in a newspaper article that was published in Agos.

Mr. Dink can barely control his tears as he rails against what he terms "the injustice" of that sentence. He insists that his article pressed the Armenian people to purge any feelings of animosity toward the Turks. So why Turkish judges deemed his words offensive to the Turkish people, he says, remains a complete mystery.

Mr. Dink is among several prominent Turkish intellectuals who are being prosecuted for their views. The internationally acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is facing up to four years in prison for also insulting the Turkish state. Mr. Pamuk, whose work has been translated into 35 languages, was indicted for telling a Swiss magazine that "30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians were killed in these lands and no one, but I, dares to say so." Mr. Pamuk is due to appear in court on December 16 in a trial that is likely to come under intense international scrutiny.

The EU's enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn has warned that should Mr. Pamuk be convicted, negotiations with the European Union could be interrupted.

The fate of some 1.5 million Ottoman Armenian citizens who once inhabited the country remains a highly sensitive topic in modern Turkey.

The Armenians say most of their kin died in a genocide campaign waged by a group of army officers known as the Young Turks, who led Turkey during the First World War. Turkey says several hundred thousand Armenians did perish, but as a result of hunger, exposure and disease, as they were forcibly marched into the Syrian desert after collaborating with invading Russian forces.

A growing number of Turkish academics and intellectuals are daring to challenge the official line and never more openly than during a ground breaking conference that took place last month in Istanbul. During the two-day event, some of the participants described the mass killings of Armenians as genocide.

Like many here, Mr. Dink says that the forum proves that Turkey is finally beginning to face up to its past and is a further sign that EU inspired reforms are finally beginning to make an impact. But for some, he notes, such progress comes at a heavy price.

Mr. Dink says he believes that what he calls the "deep state," a coalition of militantly nationalist individuals within the army, the judiciary and other state organs who oppose Turkey's EU membership, are responsible for the legal challenges he and his colleagues face. Through such cases he says this "deep state" hopes to derail the EU process and hang onto its influence and privileges. But he also lays part of the blame on the government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Mr. Dink lauds the government for pushing through a broad swath or reforms that helped pave the way for the Oct. 3 accession talks. But the same government, he adds is also responsible for introducing articles in the newly adopted penal code under which he and fellow writers are being prosecuted.