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Turkish writers on trial; PEN speaks out

ANKARA, May 31 -- A Turkish judge postponed Friday the trial of 98 Turkish writers and intellectuals charged with spreading propaganda, while the international writers' group PEN issued statement of solidarity for the defendants. About 20 of the 98 people charged under Penal Code 162 for co- publishing the anthology 'Freedom of Expression and Turkey' gave evidence in the Istanbul State Security Court before the judges postponed the case to July 24, defense attorney Selim Okcugil told United Press International. In New York, PEN issued a statement signed by 98 British, U.S., Canadian, Japanese, Austrian and Danish writers expressing their 'staunch support' for the 'defense of freedom of expression in Turkey.' 'We will be with you in court, if not in person, then in spirit,' said the PEN signatories, who included the U.S. playwrights Edward Albee and Arthur Miller and authors Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag. In London, PEN's similar statement of solidarity was published in the letters column of the Independent newspaper. Among those signing were British playwrights Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, writers Doris Lessing and Margaret Drabble and philosophy professor Sir Isaiah Berlin. Most of its essays published in the controversial anthology dealt with the insurgency in Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, where nearly 20,000 people have been killed since separatists began in 1984 a guerrilla campaign aimed at carving an independent Kurdistan out of Turkey. The defendants published the book as an 'act of support' for several Turkish writers -- notably Yaser Kemal, author of 'Mehmet, My Hawk' -- who had already been convicted of infringing censorship laws, political scientist Turker Alkan of Ankara University said.

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'Legal reform is long overdue in Turkey,' the PEN statement said. 'There can be no freedom of expression in a place where writers of the stature of Yaser Kemal are convicted. 'Nor can there be a free press when journalists who broach certain 'taboo' subjects, such as the harassment of the Kurdish minority, face death threats, imprisonment, torture and even death,' it said. Among the 98 co-publishers, many of whom had not actually contributed to the book, were the writer Asaf Akat, the actor Halil Ergun and the musician Sanar Yurdatapan. Alkan said the book 'was a challenge to the political authorities, and must have made them feel awkward because legally they had to prosecute (the publishers), but morally it did not make sense to do so.' Although Turkey has taken significant steps toward improving human rights in the last 10 years, such trials still take place because 'prosecutors and judges have to change their minds, and laws have to be changed,' he said. 'It is not easy to change a whole culture from an authoritarian one to a democratic one in a short period of time,' he said.

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