Mightier than the sword
THE day I met Ragip Zarakolu was the day before one of the many trials he has had to undergo in the course of his career as a writer and publisher.
A charming man, he looked like the kindly woodchopper in a fairytale, with a soft beard and sturdy, strong shoulders. But underneath he was anxious.
Zarakolu had been to prison before and didn't want to go again. He didn't want to be found guilty, yet he didn't want to let pass the opportunity to say what he thought in public. To prepare for the next day's trial he was staying the night in a hotel.
Zarakolu and his second wife, American photographer Katherine Holle, live on the Asian shore of Istanbul. On days when the traffic gets gridlocked or fog rolls in across the waters of the Bosphorus, it can take more than two hours to get from one side of the city to the other. And you don't want to be late for court. "There's tension before a trial," says Zarakolu. "Sometimes you need peace so I stay at the hotel."
In the 30 years since he and his first wife Ayse started their publishing house, Belge, he has gone through 40 trials. Although he says he can generally cope with the pressure, it's not always manageable – he spent several months last year in a US hospital being treated for heart problems. Now, in his late 50s, he faces the possibility of a three-year jail sentence.
In the past Turkey's prisons were notorious for their inhumane conditions and many Turkish dissidents, including Ayse, were tortured. "They were hanging people by their hands, using electric shocks, beating people on the soles of their feet. They also tied people to the bed to stay there one week without going to the toilet, so it's a humiliation," says Zarakolu.
Conditions in Turkish prisons have progressed from the filth, corruption and cruelty shown in the film Midnight Express. One of the city's most brutal prisons has now been turned into the five-star Four Seasons hotel, a palace in marble and gold. It's hard to believe it was once a gloomy hell hole.
This week writers from all over the world will come to Glasgow to pledge their support for brave – and stubborn – people like Zarakolu, who ignore their personal safety and fight for freedom of expression in the face of hostile or dictatorial governments.
International PEN's annual Writers in Prison conference is being hosted for the first time by Scottish PEN. "We're proud to be part of Scotland's tradition of upholding the rights of the world's oppressed and persecuted people," says Robin Lloyd-Jones, chairman of the Scottish WIP committee.
Scottish PEN campaigns on behalf of Zarakolu. He stands not for himself alone but for the many creative people being harassed by the Turkish state – more than 60 writers, journalists and publishers currently face trial simply for expressing their views.
Most of us think of Turkey as a cheap holiday destination – a place of sandy beaches, brilliant sunshine and the odd ruin to add a little culture to our break. We wouldn't think twice about letting the Turks into the European Union – Turkey is, after all, a modern, democratic society, is it not? For all the talk about the oppressed Kurds, every second carpet seller in Istanbul is Kurdish, so what's the problem?
But Turkey is not quite like that. Since 1984, 30,000 Kurds have been burned out of their villages and murdered by death squads. And no one is allowed to talk about it.
There are five main taboos in Turkish society and Kurdish oppression is one of them. The others are the Armenian genocide, when more than a million Armenians were killed between 1915 and the establishment of the modern Turkish state in 1923; the military; Sharia law, which the government of this predominantly Muslim country does not wish discussed because it is determined to keep the state secular; and lastly, defaming the name of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish state. His portrait can still be seen in shops and offices all over the country, although he died in 1938.
Speaking out about any of these can bring the police to your door. There could be death threats against you, even murder: on January 19 last year Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian editor of the newspaper Agos, was shot dead on the steps of his office in Istanbul.
For dissidents such as Zarakolu, struggle has been a way of life. Born in 1948, he was inflamed by Sixties hippy culture, by the idea of revolution and the protest songs of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Unlike the radicals of the west, his belief in the revolution was tested. He was first sent to prison in 1971 for belonging to a suspicious organisation – Amnesty International.
He and Ayse set up Belge in 1977 and continued to publish in the face of further imprisonment, the torture of Ayse and the firebombing of their premises by a right-wing group. "If you accept this is a struggle for the truth and for freedom of expression, it helps for me to try and remember what we went through in the past," he says.
"Sometimes we went in prison, sometimes we used the trial as a platform, sometimes we felt ourselves to be the prosecutors against the system. We try to force our society to face its history. Without this hardship we can't change society. Somebody must pay the bill."
He has been paying the bill for 30 years. Even on the day he buried his wife – Ayse died of cancer in 2002 – the Turkish authorities couldn't leave Zarakolu and his family alone. As Ayse's coffin was carried to the grave by eight Kurdish women, they were watching. As her son Deniz rose to make an emotional speech about his mother's work on behalf of the Kurds, they were watching. They waited the 40 days of mourning that is traditional in Turkey and then arrested Deniz for questioning by the anti-terror team.
"Normally humanity respects death," says Zarakolu. "This was a psychological problem for me, something like torture, because it's very aggressive. It's the unrespectfulness against the funeral, against the truth."
It took a change in the laws for Deniz to be acquitted. The charge? He had dared to suggest that Turkey's oppressed Kurdish minority might one day have an independent life. "I think Kurdish women will be free some day," he said. "And they will not forget my mother."
Six years on, the Kurds have still not forgotten Ayse and how she fought for them. In one town in the Kurdish region of Turkey, they wanted to name a public park after her but the authorities refused, saying she was a convicted criminal.
Such slights are not just a blow on the political front; they are a huge emotional blow for Zarakolu. "Always it's hardship for family life and now my life with Katherine," he says. "It's my struggle but family life is affected because always I must make my plans for the trials. I can take risk but it's also a risk for the family, especially over the last year."
During this time Turkey has been in turmoil. The government, perhaps hoping to make itself more acceptable to the European Union, promised to repeal its infamous Article 301 (a catch-all amendment to the law against insults to 'Turkishness') but has not done so. Ultra-nationalist groups who oppose Europe have been plotting to overthrow the government, in the process planning a series of assassinations of public figures, including Turkey's Nobel prizewinner for literature, Orhan Pamuk.
Saddest of all was the assassination of Dink, one of the foremost supporters of the move towards Europe. The murder seemed to symbolise the divisions within Turkish society. In the streets today, right-wing young men wear white caps like that worn by Dink's alleged murderer, while the views of the liberal middle classes are best summed up by the words of Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who delivered the Hrant Dink memorial lecture at the Bosphorus University in Istanbul: "Had I been here in Istanbul a year ago I would have been among the 100,000 people who walked with his coffin in dead silence through the wintry streets of this city, with banners saying, 'We are all Armenians', 'We are all Hrant Dink'."
"Hrant Dink was a bridge between the two sides of Turkish society," says Zarakolu. "They wanted to blow up this spiritual bridge."
He and Dink shared the same ideals, the same struggle. They both spoke out about the Armenian genocide and were jointly criticised three years ago for attending a conference in San Francisco organised by the Armenian community there. "They said the government must take our passports because we were talking against Turkey," says Zarakolu. "We never talk against Turkey. We were talking for a better, more democratic Turkey.
"Last year I was mostly in the States because of my health problems but I visited him before I left the country and I told him he should leave temporarily. I wish he had because now we've lost him."
Although the Turkish authorities no longer ban as many books and publishers will no longer be routinely tried for what they publish, there are still a large number of writers, publishers and translators before the courts.
If a country represses its intelligentsia it inevitably represses freedom of thought for all its citizens. Turkey tried 254 people under freedom of expression laws last year, only a quarter of them writers or artists.
It is a strange definition of democracy, the so-called rule by the people, that annexes its population's thought processes, and it is one the British government, with its war on terror, its constant surveillance of its own citizens, might do well to beware.
On April 8 Zarakolu faces what is expected to be his last trial, the culmination of a four-year process that began in 2004. It is presented by the Turkish courts as the scrupulous and thorough pursuit of justice, but to even the most casual observer it looks like judicial harassment. I ask Zarakolu if he is afraid of going to jail. It would, after all, be easy for him to stay in the United States with Katherine. He's almost 60 now, not an age to be contemplating going back behind bars. "Generally I forget," he says. "But sometimes I feel tired – exhausted. It's another way of oppression."
In 2003 Scottish PEN campaigned for a Tunisian writer called Zouhair Yahyaoui, who was arrested shortly after his web magazine asked readers to vote on whether their country was 'a republic, a kingdom, a zoo or a prison'. He was tortured, kept in a cockroach-infested cell and denied regular drinking water. Within 18 months of his eventual release from prison he died of a heart attack.
His question remains an essential one, that needs to be answered in Turkey – as in Britain and in all the countries where PEN works. Do we allow people to think for themselves, do we harness the creative tension of differing viewpoints? Or do we wear them out with constant trials, constant repression? The human and the political costs of the latter course are high. Republic, kingdom, zoo or prison? Who decides? r
PEN POWERIN 1921, Amy Dawson-Scott, an English writer and spiritualist, set up the writers' organisation PEN. There are now 141 centres in 99 countries.
Scottish PEN joined the movement in 1927, at the instigation of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Its first members included Neil Gunn, Edwin and Willa Muir, and Naomi Mitchison.
Scottish PEN works towards international understanding as well as for its core aim of freedom of expression – it holds multicultural events featuring the work of exiled writers living in Scotland and has been campaigning to bring at least one of our cities into the Cities of Refuge scheme, which offers a safe space and support for a persecuted foreign writer.
Members write and campaign on behalf of persecuted writers, and send them books or clothing. Scottish PEN also champions women's writing and works on behalf of endangered languages.
The organisation's Penpower project aims to address freedom of expression issues in schools, colleges and youth groups and is the key element in the final day of the conference, when the host centre presents a public session.
But, above all, it is about freedom of thought and expression, whether in foreign countries or our own.
For further information www.scottishpen.org
FREE SPEECH UNDER SIEGE
YOU can see her on YouTube, a puffy-faced woman whose shallow breath and downcast eyes speak of the stress she is under. Tran Khai Thanh Thuy (left) is a 47-year-old Vietnamese writer imprisoned last year on charges of disseminating information harmful to the state – she published a number of online articles calling for democracy.
For the past two years Thuy, a novelist, poet and essayist, has been under constant siege by the authorities. Her imprisonment was the final stage in the long process of 'justice' in Vietnam. In 2006 she was tried by a 'people's court', which consisted of 300 members of the public rounded up by the police to insult her.
Thuy has had her home invaded by mobs calling her a traitor and a prostitute and threatening to beat her; she has been held under house arrest; and while in prison she was denied medical care for her diabetes and tuberculosis.
She has now been released and I tried to contact her for the purposes of this article but the e-mail I received in reply illustrated the difficulties of her situation:
"Thank you very much for your message and your solidarity with Tran Khai Thanh Thuy. I am very sorry I am unable to give you Tran Khai Thanh Thuy's contact details. Phone communications are not assured due to great risk of being under government security surveillance. According to her husband, Tran Khai Thanh Thuy has been hospitalised since Monday, March 3."
TUNISIAN journalist and editor Sihem Bensedrine (right) spent months in jail but even on her release was subjected to psychological imprisonment. Teams of plain clothes policemen waited openly outside her home. They followed not just Bensedrine and her family, but everyone who visited her. "The police ask, 'Why do you go there and for what purpose?' and so on so that people are afraid to come again," she says. "We are living in a kind of quarantine."
The Tunisian police shut down her publishing house – all its titles were academic – in order to cut off her income. Her husband was put under arrest and lost his farm.
Bensedrine, 56, was beaten on the street, her passport was confiscated for two years and in 2000 she suffered damage to her eye, broken ribs and a damaged spine while in prison. They even hanged her daughter's dog.
Undeterred, she set up an internet magazine, Kalima. The site is blocked in Tunisia so people there must use proxy e-mail addresses to access it. "It's not in my nature to submit," she says.
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