Turkey's human rights in spotlight as author goes on trial for insulting nation

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Turkey's most celebrated and internationally renown-ed writer goes on trial today in Istanbul on charges of insulting his country's national identity in a case widely seen as a crucial test of the Turkish commitment to freedom of speech.

Orhan Pamuk, author of such critically acclaimed novels as My Name is Red and Snow, faces up to three years' imprisonment if found guilty of making comments believed to undermine "Turkishness", under Article 301 of the country's new penal code.

The trial, which relates to comments Mr Pamuk made in February accusing Turks of refusing to talk about the massacre of a million Armenians during the First World War, is not only creating discord at home but threatening to sour the country's membership talks with the European Union.

Ollie Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, said the Pamuk case was a "litmus test" of Turkey's determination to act on recent reforms it has made under EU pressure, such as guaranteeing its citizens freedom of expression. "The trial of a novelist who expressed a non-violent opinion casts a shadow over the accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU," he said. "It is not Orhan Pamuk who will stand trial tomorrow, but Turkey."

The 25-nation union officially started entry negotiations with Ankara in October and insists Turkey meet EU standards on human rights before it can join. Despite having revised the penal code this year among reforms made under pressure from Brussels, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has maintained the status of Article 301, which makes a criminal offence of denigrating national character and insulting the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk.

Mr Pamuk hit upon a particularly raw nerve in Turkish society when he told a Swiss newspaper in February that "30,000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it".

The comments provoked protest in Turkey's most traditional and conservative circles. Prosecutors opened a case against the writer. Mr Pamuk, in an article this week in the New Yorker magazine, said: "I cannot say I was surprised to be put on trial. I believe that the case against me is thin; I do not think I will end up in jail."

A delegation from the European Parliament will attend the trial. Mr Rehn said: "The Commission expects the Turkish government will make it clear to the prosecutors and judges that ... the new penal code should be interpreted fully in line with the European Convention of Human Rights."

Mr Pamuk, 53, has long been a thorn in Turkey's side. His books, in more than 20 languages, paint an often unsettling picture of a Turkey split between Western and Oriental cultures, between conservative and modern, Islamic and secular ways of thinking. He has often spoken out against Turkey's treatment of its minorities, accusing the government of encouraging "crazy" nationalism and violating human rights.

Of this latest case, which has thrust the issue of Turkish freedom of speech into the international spotlight, Mr Pamuk said it was difficult to reconcile the modern, Western-leaning Turkey which Prime Minister Erdogan tries to promote with the hardline, conservative movement prosecuting him for speaking his mind. "The hardest thing was to explain why a country officially committed to entry in the European Union would wish to imprison an author whose books were well-known in Europe," Pamuk wrote.

Dozens of other far less famous writers and academics are also facing charges under the revised penal code.