Charged with insulting Turkish identity and army, controversial author faces jail time
By Levon Sevunts THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Tuesday, October 4, 2005
When Dora Sakayan first published her grandfather’s diary in Montreal, she had no inkling that 10 years later it could land someone a half a world away in court, facing as much as two years in jail.
But then, she never dreamed that her grandfather’s diary, an eyewitness account of the events in which several members of his family perished, along with 30,000 Greeks and Armenians at the hands of Turkish nationalist forces in Izmir in 1922, would ever be published in Turkey.
Ragip Zarakolu, a prominent Turkish publisher and human rights activist, dared to translate and publish Mrs. Sakayan’s book, An Armenian Doctor in Turkey: Garabed Hatcherian: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922. Now, is charged with insulting the armed forces, Turkish identity and the memory of Kemal Ataturk, the iconic founder of the Turkish Republic.
“I was very worried and upset that he is suffering because of me, because of my book,” Mrs. Sakayan said during an interview over a cup of Turkish coffee and homemade sweets in her downtown apartment. “But he calmed me down, saying that he sees this as his calling to use the court house as a platform to speak out on human rights, the rights of Turkey’s ethnic minorities and as an opportunity to fight historical revisionism.”
Mr. Zarakolu has a track record of defying Turkish authorities. He was imprisoned for three years for his activism in 1971 by the military junta. In 1977, Mr. Zarakolu and his now-deceased wife Ayse Nur founded The Belge (The Document) Publishing House, which has been a focus for Turkish censorship laws ever since. The couple was imprisoned, their books were impounded and they were forced to pay heavy fines. In 1995, their offices were firebombed by a right-wing group.
Mr. Zarakolu’s legal troubles began because Turkey officially denies that the massacres and deportations of the Armenian population of Ottoman Turkey during the First World War constituted genocide. That puts Turkey at odds with the majority of genocide scholars, as well as more than 20 parliaments, including Canada’s. The Armenian question has been a taboo protected by Draconian censorship laws in Turkey.
What irked the Turkish authorities most about her book is that it deals with massacres perpetrated by some of the founders of the modern Turkish republic, not by Young Turks, which was the case between 1915 and 1918, Mrs. Sakayan said.
In his defence statement during the first court hearing in the case on Sept. 21, Mr. Zarakolu said Turkey owed an apology to Mrs. Sakayan’s grandfather, a Turkish citizen and a decorated military doctor, who served his country despite the Armenian massacres.
“Publishing this book can be counted as part of that apology,” Mr. Zarakolu told the court. “The accusations that the book insults the Turkish national character or the Turkish army are totally unfair. All these events really happened. Banning things will not change anything.”
Mr. Zarakolu is also facing two different criminal proceedings related to another book on the Armenian genocide he published and a critical magazine article he wrote about Turkish policy toward Iraqi Kurds.
The trial for the magazine article is set for Oct. 11 and he is due to return to court on Nov. 22 for the hearings on Mrs. Sakayan’s book.
The case of Mr. Zarakolu comes at an embarrassing moment for Turkish authorities as they prepare to start negotiations for eventual membership in the European Union. Abolishing their censorship laws is one of the preconditions for Turkey joining the EU.
Yet despite some changes to the penal code, about 60 Turkish writers and publishers are facing trials in Turkey, said Kjell Olaf Jensen, president of the Norwegian PEN Centre, which has been closely monitoring the trials.
Among them is the world-famous Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk. Mr. Pamuk will be brought before an Istanbul court on Dec.16, 2005. He faces up to three years in prison for a comment published in a Swiss newspaper earlier this year where he criticized the Turkish position on the Armenian genocide and the Kurdish issue.
“I find the whole thing completely absurd,” Mr. Jensen said. “Are these the same authorities who want Turkey to become a member of the EU?”
Special to The Globe and Mail