Turkish court drops charges against novelist

A Turkish court today dropped charges against the acclaimed novelist Orhan Pamuk, ending a high-profile trial that outraged European Union officials and sparked questions over Turkey's commitment to free speech.

Pamuk was charged for insulting "Turkishness" in an interview with a Swiss newspaper. The court decision came at a delicate time for EU aspirant Turkey. This week, the EU is to begin a review of the country's much criticized justice system.

"The court dropped the case," Haluk Inanici, the author's lawyer, told the AP by telephone. "This case should not have been opened in the first place."

EU legislators severely criticized the trial, questioning the commitment to freedom of expression in a country which opened membership negotiations with the bloc in October.

Turkey is still not off the hook, as dozens of people are still facing charges similar to Pamuk's.

Pamuk, the country's most prominent author, was charged under a law that makes insulting Turkey a crime after a Swiss newspaper in February quoted him as saying, "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Pamuk's remarks brought up two of the most painful episodes in recent Turkish history: The massacre of Armenians during World War I, which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide, and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.

In the opening hearing of the trial Dec. 16, a judge threw the case against Pamuk back to the Justice Ministry, demanding that the government first approve it. Justice Minister Cemil Cicek responded last week saying the ministry has no say over the case under a new penal code and left the critical decision to the local court.

The local court today discussed the minister's response and interpreted it as a refusal to give permission and dropped the charges against Pamuk, saying the Justice Ministry's consent is missing from the file, the lawyer said.

Cicek's move was an apparent attempt to avoid outraging either Europe by allowing a renowned author to stand trial for his views or nationalists by dropping the case.

However, the court decision to drop the case will likely anger nationalists, including some within the government's conservative grass roots, who were disturbed by Pamuk's remarks.

During the trial nationalists pelted Pamuk's car with eggs, shouting "Traitor!" and "Love it or leave it!" in reference to Turkey.

Pamuk, author of "Snow" and "My Name is Red" and an often-mentioned candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, said in a brief statement to the media after the trial that "it is not good for Turkey, for our democracy, for such freedom of expression cases to be prolonged."

Turkey has for years come under severe EU criticism for laws that stifle freedom of speech. The nation has carried out a sweeping series of reforms to expand freedom of expression as part of its EU membership drive, but nationalist prosecutors and judges often still interpret laws in a restrictive manner.

Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul acknowledged that charges brought against Pamuk had tarnished the country's image and said for the first time that laws that limit freedom of expression may be changed.

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