Free Speech on Trial in Turkey ; the Case of Writer Orhan Pamuk Is Being Watched as a Test of Political Reforms

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Like one of his own characters, trapped between liberal yearnings and the reality of an unforgiving state, Turkey's most celebrated novelist, Orhan Pamuk, is slated to appear in court Friday to face charges of "insulting Turkish identity."

The high-profile free speech trial pits the aims of European- driven reform in Turkey - which began EU membership talks last October - against a fiercely nationalistic tradition that permits little challenge. Mr. Pamuk's trial is one of more than 65 other free speech cases now under way in Turkey, which are being closely watched by European observers, as a test of the recent reforms.

"This is a tug of war in Turkey now, between those who favor democratic and EU values, [against] those who are afraid of such change - the hard-core nationalists who are willing to do anything to stop that trend," says Haluk Sahin, a journalism professor at Bilgi University and columnist for Radikal newspaper, who is also facing trial in February under the same statute.

"[Nationalists] have decided that the legal system is the soft underbelly," says Mr. Sahin. "And by using legal instruments and their ties [to the judiciary], they can harm Turkey's prospects in that big march toward the European goal."

Pamuk is charged over remarks made to a Swiss newspaper last February, that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Pamuk did not use the word "genocide," which is officially rejected here in favor of an "internecine fighting" formulation to explain the Armenian deaths 90 years ago. Western historians, however, often consider the events in Anatolia during the last years of the Ottoman Empire to be the first genocide of the 20th century.

Turkey has also long had difficulty accepting that Kurds have a separate ethnic identity, with their own language and customs, beyond a designation as "Mountain Turks." Battle against separatist Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s left an estimated 30,000 Kurds dead.

Even discussing such issues has been taboo in Turkey, though freedom of speech protection is required to join the EU club. Extremists rallied against Pamuk; a provincial governor ordered his books burned.

"Various newspapers launched hate campaigns against me, with some right-wing (but not necessarily Islamist) columnists going as far as to say that I should be 'silenced' for good," Pamuk writes in the current issue of The New Yorker magazine. "What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats?" he asks.

Pamuk is the author of prize-winning bestsellers, including "Snow," "My Name is Red," and "The White Castle." He has gained notoriety for exploring controversial views of his culture in a memoir-style of fiction, making him something of a Turkish Salman Rushdie. …