Novelist acquitted after trial for 'insulting Turkishness'

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Turkey's increasingly fragile relations with the European Union were spared further embarrassment when the best-selling novelist Elif Shafak was acquitted of charges that fictional Armenian characters in her latest book had "insulted Turkishness".

Ms Shafak, who had faced up to three years in prison for comments made in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul, was the latest in a string of prominent Turkish writers, journalists and intellectuals to be hauled before the courts under Article 301 which punishes anyone deemed to have "denigrated" the Turkish nation.

Dismissing the charges brought by a group of nationalist lawyers, Judge Irfan Adil Uncu told the court that "freedom of speech is a priority", a judgment welcomed by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Ms Shafak.

Speaking from hospital, where she gave birth last weekend, she said: "I'm very happy with the outcome but only on a personal basis. As long as 301 is out there and interpreted or misinterpreted like that there'll be many other cases like this. This is not the last one."

The offending passage in the novel, which tells the tale of an American-Armenian and Turkish family whose lives become intertwined, involves an Armenian character who claims that "Turkish butchers" massacred his ancestors in a 1915 "genocide".

Turkey insists the mass evacuation and deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians from 1915 to 1917 was not a planned genocide. Calling it such can be a criminal offence and, until recently, discussing the issue was taboo.

But there are signs that the situation is changing, albeit slowly. "In the past year a process has started in which the Armenian issue is beginning to be discussed," said Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch MEP. "This is a positive development. Now Elif Shafak is off the hook, we hope this process will continue."

After taking power in 2003, Mr Erdogan's Islamic-rooted government passed legal reforms to bring Turkey in line with EU norms. But Article 301 remains, a holdover from a more draconian era and a concession to vocal nationalists. The EU, which Turkey hopes to join, has expressed concern over the issue in the past, warning that it poses a significant threat to freedom of expression.

Although most of the cases brought in recent years, such as that of Orhan Pamuk, the country's leading writer, have been dropped on technicalities, and no one has yet been imprisoned, the trials are damaging to Turkey's image abroad. Ms Shafak's case was jarring because it was based on comments made by fictional characters.

Sixty far-right protesters, some carrying EU flags marked with swastikas and emblazoned with the slogan "fascist Europe", chanted slogans as they gathered outside the courtroom yesterday. Their cause is being championed by a lawyer, Kemal Kerincsiz, whose extremist Union of Lawyers is responsible for most of the charges brought under Article 301.

The EU insists the article must be abolished. But despite his parliamentary majority, Mr Erdogan appears unwilling to amend the law for fear of alienating the nationalist constituency in the year before a general election.

"Unfortunately, there is a rise in nationalist sentiment and we are concerned," Mr Lagendijk told reporters after yesterday's verdict. "Turkish political leaders in favour of European accession, and with good reason, have now fallen silent".

Observers point out that 80 cases are pending related to restrictions on freedom of speech - and that few of these will receive the attention given to Ms Shafak or Mr Pamuk. "We can't have a high level international campaign for each of them and that is why the government must act quickly to abolish this law," said the Labour MEP Richard Howitt, who is in Turkey on a fact-finding trip ahead of the EU's annual progress report on Turkey, due out on 8 November.