Defamation Cases May Harm Turkey EU Bid

Special to The Times

Six months after internationally acclaimed author Orhan Pamuk was cleared on charges of insulting the Turkish identity, another best-selling novelist is facing similar charges.

Elif Shafak could serve up to three years in jail if convicted over remarks made by a fictional character in her latest book, “The Bastard of Istanbul.” The novel touches on one of the most sensitive subjects in Turkey, the Armenian genocide.

Shafak’s case is likely to further tarnish the image of Turkey, which is engaged in membership talks with the 25-member European Union. EU politicians and diplomats are expressing concern over the number of cases brought against Turkish writers and journalists under Article 301 of the penal code, which outlines penalties for defaming the Turkish Republic or “Turkishness.”

Olli Rehn, the European official supervising membership talks, said Wednesday that Turkish courts were failing to comply with EU standards.


Rehn’s statement came after a court Tuesday confirmed the conviction of Hrant Dink, an ethnic Armenian journalist, who was given a six-month jail sentence for writing an article in which he exhorted Armenians to overcome their hatred of Turks. The article was construed as an insult to Turks.

The court postponed Dink’s sentence and asked a local court to review the case. Rehn said the ruling served as an example that could be followed in similar cases.

According to the Turkish Publishers’ Assn., 47 writers are being prosecuted on charges that include insulting Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and “inciting racial hatred.”

The cases fly in the face of broad reforms introduced in 2002 that helped persuade the EU to open long-delayed membership talks with Turkey. The EU repeatedly has warned that it could suspend the talks if Turkey continues to breach accession requirements.

Shafak’s book is the story of an Armenian family in San Francisco and a Turkish family in Istanbul whose lives intersect over nine decades.

Its references to the slaughter of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during and after World War I are by Shafak’s own admission “difficult to digest” because the overwhelming majority of Turks deny that the genocide took place.

However, the book has topped best-seller lists, selling more than 50,000 copies since its publication in March. “The feedback I received has been very, very positive,” Shafak, 35, said in a recent interview.

Ragip Zarakolu, president of the publishers’ association, said such works are gaining a wider audience because more Turks are seeking to explore their country’s past.


But the books also face a nationalist backlash.

Zarakolu is facing three court cases over books he has published. Two of them deal with the Armenian genocide.

Kemal Kerincsiz, a right-wing lawyer, filed charges against Shafak last month. In one of the passages, presented by Kerincsiz as evidence against the author, an Armenian character says, “I am the grandchild of genocide survivors who lost all their relatives in the hands of Turkish butchers in 1915.”

Shafak argued that comments made by fictional characters could not be used to press charges, and the case was throw out. An appeals court, however, overruled that decision last week.


Kerincsiz and his ultra-nationalist lawyers group known as the Turkish Jurists’ Union also filed the complaint against Pamuk for asserting in an interview with a Swiss newspaper that “1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds died in these lands, but no one but I dares talk about it.”

Shafak says she believes the wave of prosecutions is part of a broader campaign by those who oppose EU membership.

“In my country there is a clash of opinions between those who want Turkey to join the EU and to become a more open society and those who want to keep Turkey as an insular, xenophobic, nationalist and closed society,” she said.

Support for EU membership among Turks plunged over the last year to 43% from 74%, according to one survey. And a 13-nation Pew Global Attitudes report that was released in June said only 16% of Turks surveyed had a favorable opinion of Christians and 15% had a favorable opinion of Jews.