I expected trouble when I arrived at the court building in Istanbul on Friday, but nothing like what actually happened. I was there to observe the trial of my old friend, the novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has been charged with denigrating Turkish identity, on behalf of the writers' organisation PEN, but I was unprepared for the throng of screaming hate-filled faces as he arrived and left the drab district court in the suburb of Sisli. Inside and outside the six-storey modern building, dozens of Turkish police in riot gear stood by as Orhan was struck on the head and his supporters were jostled, punched and kicked. Screams of "traitor" filled the air and his car was pelted with eggs when he emerged into the street after a hearing that left this important case unresolved.
In all, about 60 writers and journalists are facing trial in Turkey, many of them under Article 301 of the penal code introduced in June this year and supposedly intended to bring the country's laws on freedom of expression in line with the EU. None of these people can be feeling safe this weekend after the disgraceful scenes in Istanbul were shown on TV and reported in yesterday's newspapers. From the point of view of the Turkish government, which was given the go-ahead to begin accession talks only two months ago, Friday's events could hardly be more disastrous, calling into question not only its commitment to human rights but its willingness to protect some of the country's most courageous and gifted people.
In Orhan's case, his "offence" was to raise in a magazine interview the question of Turkey's treatment on its Armenian and Kurdish minorities. These are important issues but his situation, and that of academics such as Dr Murat Belge of Istanbul's Bilgi University, charged under Article 301 only two weeks ago, raises much bigger questions. The decision to begin the EU accession process involved a great deal of persuasion to pacify Turkey's opponents, including Austria and right-wing groups in France and Germany. A delegation from the European Parliament was among the horrified spectators last week as a mob yelled threats and insults at one of the world's greatest living authors. Can Turkey really expect to become a member of the EU if the government allows its novelists, journalists and academics to be intimidated like this?
Orhan has always made it clear that his case is just one of many but the way he has been treated is emblematic of the visceral hatred which dissenting voices attract in Turkey. Laws such as Article 301 encourage self-censorship, for only the bravest people would voluntarily place themselves in the awful position Orhan found himself in last week. The judge seemed to have little or no control over events in his courtroom, leaving Orhan to stand for 45 minutes as lawyers from the ultra-right jurists' circle shouted abuse only feet from him. Openly racist, they wanted all the "Europeans" cleared from the room, a request that the judge did at least deny.
I had found a seat but could not use it because I was jammed in between diplomats, observers and journalists; my friend Maureen Freely, Orhan's English translator, lost her footing in the scrum and would have been trampled had she not been rescued by a reporter. In the end, after a shouting match in the courtroom, the judge passed the buck, referring the case to the justice minister on technical grounds. As matters stand, Orhan is expected to run the gauntlet again on 7 February. I fear for his safety and I also fear for Turkey, whose progress towards the modern European identity most of its citizens want will be derailed if this travesty of justice is allowed to continue.Reuse content