A political science professor was convicted yesterday of insulting the founder of modern Turkey and given a 15-month suspended prison sentence.
Atilla Yayla, a professor at Ankara's Gazi University and head of the Association for Liberal Thinking, was convicted by a court in the western port city of Izmir of insulting the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk, who founded secular Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, is revered by many Turks, and his portrait adorns walls in all government offices.
Yayla's conviction comes amid European criticism of Turkey, which aspires to join the European Union, for not doing enough to protect freedom of expression. Several prominent Turkish journalists and writers — including Nobel literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk — have been tried under another law that bars insulting "Turkishness" and state institutions.
Turkey's efforts to soften the much-criticized law — Article 301 of the Turkish penal code — that limits free speech has delayed by increased government efforts to lift a ban on Islamic-style head scarves in universities, a ruling party legislator said Monday.
"301 continues to be one of the top items on our agenda. As soon as we are done with the head scarf issue in higher education institutions, it will come up again," said Nurettin Canikli.
Yayla, who was in Britain and could not immediately be reached for comment on the court's ruling, will appeal the verdict, said Ozlem Caglar Yilmaz of the Association for Liberal Thinking.
The court initially said it would appoint an academic to monitor the professor and ensure that he does not re-offend within the next two years, but later rescinded that decision because of Yayla's good behavior in court, Yilmaz said.
Yayla was charged after saying in a speech in 2006 that the era of one-party rule under Ataturk, from 1925-45, was not as progressive as the official ideology would have Turks believe. He said it was "regressive in some respects." He also criticized the statues and pictures of Ataturk, saying Europeans would be baffled to see the portraits of just one man on the walls.
Yayla insisted that he was not insulting Ataturk but only questioning his legacy. He said he was also challenging the rigid way in which some followers interpret Ataturk's principles as justification for opposing liberal reforms and imposing strict, secular laws such as the ban on Islamic head scarves at universities.
"As an academic, I must be free to think, to search and share findings," Yayla said in a December 2006 interview with The Associated Press. "If Turkey wants to be a civilized country, academics must be able to scientifically criticize and evaluate Ataturk's ideas."
Gazi University fired Yayla over the controversy, but he was later reinstated.
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