Obituary: Ugur Mumcu

Ugur Mumcu, lawyer, journalist, and writer, born Krsehir Turkey 22 August 1942, married 1976 Guldal Homan (one son, one daughter), died Ankara 24 January 1993.

IN TOWNS and villages all across Turkey this week, thousands of ordinary Turks stood in spontaneous silent vigils in the streets in protest at the assassination of Ugur Mumcu in a car-bomb explosion last Sunday. Outside the Mumcu family's apartment-block home in Ankara, groups of mourners kept watch day and night with candles in their hand.

It is a sombre end to a lifetime spent battling for democratic socialist ideals by a man who was not only fearless, but also invariably modest and full of humour. Single-handedly, Mumcu probably did more than anyone else to defend press freedoms and human rights in his country. It is a mark of his achievement that by the end of his life, despite his socialist convictions, he was admired and trusted by a wide range of former opponents and critics, including conservative politicians, the senior figures in the military, the judiciary, and the civil service.

This position was partly achieved through his journalism, especially his pithy and amusingly sarcastic daily columns in Cumhuriyet newspaper, and television appearances, but also through a torrent of books. He wrote nearly 20 in 16 years, lifting the veil of mystery on murky matters such as the attempted assassination of the Pope by a Turkish neo-Fascist; arms smuggling; terrorist movements of all varieties; human rights and press freedom; and, latterly, the need to defend Kemalist secular values in Turkey against fundamentalism.

From being a controversialist, he became almost the main fountain of accepted opinion among educated people in Turkey. Yet he never relished being a celebrity. His chief interest in life was research into corruption, terrorism and political intrigue.

His meticulous investigations owed much to his having trained in his youth to be a lawyer. To some extent he retained the outlook of the legal profession. However his career as a university law teacher was brought to an abrupt end by the 1971 military coup in Turkey when he was arrested and accused of belonging to a group of left-wing conspirators. This - and the banishment that followed - formed the basis of his first book, which was an instant hit.

In the harsh years that followed the next military coup in 1980, he faced and eventually overcame a welter of martial-law prosecutions for his writings. By then, his research into Communist Bulgarian involvement in terrorism and the background to the attack on the Pope in the same years began to attract an international audience.

Around the same time, I was working in Ankara as a foreign correspondent and incurring deep unpopularity for defying an unspoken rule to report as little as possible on human-rights and press-freedom issues under the military. Ugur Mumcu and his family, more or less uniquely, bolstered my flagging professional resolve at dinners in his home, where the wine and good cheer seemed inexhaustible, no matter how gloomy the political situation.

Mumcu was always aware that his research had made him enemies and that his life might be in danger. His researches in the last few months seemed to be leading to surprising conclusions: one was that the Islamic fundamentalists might not be behind several unexplained assassinations of leading secularists. Nonetheless, he believed that he might be a target for a fundamentalist attack. 'I don't know what these people are going to do to me,' he told a friend. His death is certainly the bitterest blow that Turkey's democracy has sustained for more than a decade. But his works are so numerous, and his personality so strongly imprinted in the consciousness of his fellow citizens, that his legacy in Turkey will endure.