Turkey under fire over ban on insults to 'Turkishness'

Monday, April 21, 2008

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- "Happy is he who says: 'I am a Turk."'

Turkey's motto is on display in schools, hospitals and military barracks. Schoolchildren recite it like the Pledge of Allegiance. It covers hillsides in southeast Turkey, where the military is fighting Kurdish separatists.

This patriotic message, coined by Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, is backed up by law: a ban on insulting "Turkishness." But it has become a serious drag on Turkey's efforts to get its democracy into shape for joining the European Union. The EU says it's a restriction on free speech that disqualifies Turkey for membership.

On Friday, Parliament's justice panel began debating a government proposal to soften Article 301 of Turkey's penal code, which has been used to prosecute Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk and other intellectuals.

Parliament is expected to approve the amendment as early as this month. But critics say it's a half-measure by a government caught between liberal opponents of the law and nationalists who see it as a cave-in to European interference.

Cengiz Aktar, an EU expert at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, doubts it will work, because at least 20 other articles in Turkey's penal code have "the same mentality of killing freedom of speech."

But many Turks believe even a token softening of the law rewards EU pressure, and even threatens Turkish security.

The change would cut the maximum sentence for denigrating Turkish identity or institutions from three years in prison to two, suspended for first-time offenders. The justice minister would have to approve prosecutions, and Article 301 would refer to the crime of denigrating the "Turkish nation," rather than the vague term "Turkishness."

Ataturk designed his nationalist motto, "Ne mutlu Turkum diyene," as he sought to build a strong, secular Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, which united territories in Europe, Africa and the Middle East under the banner of Islam. He largely succeeded, amid war, slaughter and pressure from Western powers.

Nearly a century later, many Turks believe their nationhood faces the same threats, chiefly from the Kurdish separatists, but also from governments and pressure groups that claim the mass killings of Armenians by Turks in the early 20th century were "genocide."

It was the genocide claim that landed Pamuk as well as fellow novelist Elif Safak in court, and later motivated the assassination in 2007 of Hrant Dink, a Turkish Armenian.

The Turkish Justice Ministry says 1,533 people faced prosecution under Article 301 in 2006. Some cases, including Pamuk's, are dismissed. Many end in acquittals. Those convicted included Dink, the murdered journalist, and lawyer Eren Keskin, prosecuted for insulting the armed forces.

Often, it's not the government but nationalist individuals who start the prosecutions, as well as the Turkish military, according to Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch.

Supporters of Article 301 say some European countries, including Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, have similar laws. But these are hardly ever acted upon.

Another section of the penal code makes it a crime to insult state institutions or even officials. Last year a punk rock group was prosecuted for a song attacking Turkey's equivalent of the high school SAT. It was acquitted.

Even Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan isn't immune. His Islamic-oriented party faces a prosecutor's efforts to ban it for allegedly violating the secular principles crafted by Ataturk.

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