What Will Turkey Tolerate?
Maryann Bird
Time, February 18, 2002
For Turkey, a country that has long prided itself on being a bridge between East and West, the clash of civilizations begins at home. Two gatherings in Istanbul last week, held about a kilometer apart, again brought into sharp juxtaposition the external role that Turkey craves and the internal realities of a country struggling to improve the quality of its democracy. Both meetings, in their own way, emphasized the duality of a nation that desperately wants to be accepted into Europe, yet finds itself rebuffed time and again in large measure because of its notoriously poor human-rights record.

On the grounds of a former Ottoman palace overlooking the Bosphorus, member nations of the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference met in the first-ever O.I.C.-E.U. Joint Forum, initiated by Turkey in the aftermath of Sept. 11 "to promote understanding and harmony among civilizations." Some 70 nations took part, including Iran and Iraq, two points on Washington's "axis of evil." As Turkish officials led their guests in discussing tolerance, appreciation of cultural diversity and the understanding of different perceptions and values, the nearby State Security Court was hearing the latest freedom-of-expression cases on its docket.

There, in a trial that vied with the forum for global attention, the 22-year-old proprietor and editor of the Aram publishing house, Fatih Tas, stood accused of disseminating propaganda against the unity of the Turkish state. The charge is often leveled against those who question Turkey's treatment of its estimated 12 million Kurds (among a total population of 65 million). Tas' "crime" was to publish material critical of Turkey in American Interventionism, a collection of essays by Noam Chomsky, the renowned American linguistics professor and longtime thorn in the side of U.S. policymakers. Tas avoided conviction and a year in prison, observers agree, mainly because Chomsky had flown into Istanbul to stand by his side, prompting the prosecutor in the glare of negative publicity to throw in the towel.

There's a growing belief that the Turkish judiciary itself is now on trial. If the political leadership, which has been flirting with reform, avoids setting strict criteria for positive change, many feel, judges will be left to interpret the laws as they see fit and not necessarily in ways that will help Turkey on its path to E.U. membership. "Law is not local anymore," says Vahit Bicak, who lectures on human rights at the Ankara Police Academy. "We are part of an international legal system and must have respect for global values."

Earlier this month, Turkey's multiparty parliament amended key articles of the criminal code whose purpose, civil-rights advocates have long argued, was to limit legitimate freedom of expression. Approved despite the fierce objections of conservative legislators, the changes include reduction of sentences for insulting branches of the Turkish state (including the courts and the military). The changes also make it more difficult to prosecute cases under article 312 of the penal code, under which it is an offense to incite hatred based on class, race, religion or region. That catchall clause has been used to pursue anyone expressing pro-Kurdish or politically Islamic views. Excluded from the legal revisions, however, are the implementation of such highly sensitive steps as allowing Kurdish-language broadcasting and abolishing the death penalty for terrorism and treason.

Human-rights activists and others believe the new legislation merely reflects Turkish officials' attempts to conform to E.U. norms without changing the spirit of how laws are applied. There is a prevailing sense in Turkey that laws exist to protect a "sacred" state from irrational individuals, rather than to protect individuals from possible arbitrary actions by the state. "It's up to the courts to interpret the laws in accordance with Turkey's commitment to join the European Union and to abide by the European Court of Human Rights," says Jonathan Sugden of Human Rights Watch. That view appears to be shared, unofficially, by E.U. diplomats. While seeing Tas' acquittal as a positive step, Sugden is not sure whether judges will now routinely refuse to convict in freedom-of-expression cases. For Turkey, that would be a big step on the long road to Europe.

According to the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, scores of people were convicted in freedom-of-expression cases last year. Twenty-eight television and 32 radio stations were obliged to cease broadcasting for a total of 3,786 days. The day before Chomsky arrived in Turkey, a local radio station in Diyarbakir, capital of the southeastern Kurdish region, was ordered off the air for a year for playing Kurdish music that had an ideological content. Fifty books were removed from store shelves in 2001, and a number of Kurdish musical cassettes were banned. (While a constitutional amendment allowing Kurdish broadcasts was approved in October, relevant laws have not yet been rewritten.)

In most freedom-of-expression cases, the alleged offense was more flagrant than the Chomsky text that propelled Tas into court. In that March 2001 lecture, entitled "Prospects for Peace in the Middle East" and delivered in Toledo, Ohio, the U.S. academic referred to Turkey's crackdown on its Kurdish population as "one of the most severe human-rights atrocities of the 1990s, continuing in fact." Chomsky also laid much of the blame for the deaths of tens of thousands of Kurds and the destruction of their villages in "massive ethnic cleansing" at the feet of the U.S., which provided Turkey with the military wherewithal to suppress the Kurds.

With the world's television cameras trained on them as their country hosted the forum on harmony among civilizations, the three-man state-security tribunal accepted Tas' defense that he had intended only to "contribute to academic debate." In Turkey, that is no small victory.