Turkey's top author sentenced for article on Kurds

HUGH POPE

Istanbul

Like a wicked godmother cursing the new-born centre-right government that took power in Turkey yesterday, Istanbul's State Security Court handed down a 20-month jail sentence on Turkey's best-known writer, Yashar Kemal.

The three judges decided there was an incitement to racial hatred in his article "Black Clouds over Turkey", in which he condemned Turkish oppression of the Kurds. Mr Kemal's passionate article was published in a book called Freedom of Expression in Turkey, subsequently banned.

"I am being judged because I want the war to stop. I will fight until death for the end of this war [between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerrillas]," Mr Kemal said. "More than three and a half million people have been driven from their homes and are now searching rubbish dumps for their food."

The sentence against Mr Kemal and the fine on his co-defendant and publisher, Erdal Oz, who was ordered to pay the equivalent of pounds 38, were suspended as long as they did not repeat their "crime" within five years. Lawyers said both would appeal against the sentence but this was not the attitude taken by Mr Kemal, 72. As he left the courtroom, he shouted: "Jail me if you like. It is not you who sentence me. I condemn you."

The judges may have considered they were being lenient, deferring to Mr Kemal's international prestige, his 30 novels translated into many languages and sales of 5 million books in Turkey alone. He is Kurdish and writes in Turkish, seeing himself as a mix of the two.

Mesut Yilmaz, the new Prime Minister, who sought Mr Kemal's advice before the December election, told Milliyet newspaper his government would think about allowing Kurdish television and Kurdish education. Even the word Kurd was taboo less than a decade ago and a change in Turkish attitudes was shown by Mr Kemal's prosecutor yesterday, who acknowledged the Kurds "as a race but not as a nation". But when he said he believed the article was not criminal, that the book should be unbanned and Mr Kemal and Mr Oz acquitted, the judges would not relent.

The sentence is bound to stain the reputation of the new coalition government. Kurdish nationalists will also see little future hope in an unsurprising programme read out to parliament yesterday. Mr Yilmaz spoke in cliches of "separating the terrorists from the people". And the army is building its troop strength in the mainly Kurdish south-east for the traditional spring offensive.

The new Cabinet is packed with technocrats to run the economy but also includes former police chiefs associated with a mixed policy of military repression and economic promises. These helped depopulate the Kurdish rural south-east and restored order in towns but have failed to end the 11-year guerrilla insurgency.

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