Charges Against Turkish Writer Pamuk Dropped

A court has dropped charges against Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was accused of insulting the Turkish republic for writing about the genocide of Armenians in 1915 — a taboo subject, and one that officially never happened, according to the Turkish government. Madeleine Brand speaks with Hugh Pope, a reporter in Istanbul, about the Pamuk trial and the author's place in Turkish popular culture.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick. In Istanbul, Turkey a sudden turn of events for that country's best known novelist Orhan Pamuk facing up to three years in prison.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeline Brand.

On Monday, a Turkish court dropped a case against the writer who was charged with insulting Turkishness. In a newspaper interview last February he had discussed what may be the most contentious issue in Turkish history, the massacre of more than one million Armenians by the Turks during the First World War.

CHADWICK: He also talked about the killing of 30,000 Kurds in the Southeast of Turkey. After Orhan Pamuk's interview was published in February, a prosecutor brought charges.

BRAND: Joining us to talk about why those charges have now been dropped is reporter Hugh Pope. He's on the line from Istanbul. And thanks for being with us.

Mr. HUGH POPE (Author/Reporter): Thank you.

BRAND: Well, why did the court decide to drop the charges?

Mr. POPE: Intense pressure from the Turkish government. They put all their effort into getting Turkey accepted by the European Union and this immediately raised the specter of all the bad ghosts of Turkish past of suppressing dissent and jailing writers. And they basically found a legalism that has now been interpreted by the local court that the case can't go forward.

BRAND: So basically because Mr. Pamuk is such a celebrated writer in Europe it would just be too much trouble really for the Turks to prosecute him?

Mr. POPE: It was very embarrassing. They were coming under a lot of pressure from the highest levels of government in not just Europe but from the United States as well. And these laws are strangely flexible. The idea of insulting Turkishness is obviously a very broad concept and people have said far, far more contentious things about the Armenian massacres and got away with it. And however there are lots of other people that are getting prosecuted under the same law and who are not as famous as Orhan Pamuk and are still getting prison charges. And a few of them have actually gone to jail.

BRAND: What happened immediately after Orhan Pamuk made these comments? I understand he received death threats.

Mr. POPE: Yes. That's probably the most disturbing aspect of the case is that he immediately came under not just death threats but he was physically jostled, he was attacked at the courthouse. People are making his life hell here. He lives with a guard. He can't go out normally anymore. And that's basically what the Nationalist side of this equation is trying to do. It's trying to intimidate him and anyone who thinks like him into speaking up about things that they do not want spoken about.

BRAND: So, is there now a debate going on in Turkey over this law, over how to prosecute people for insulting Turkishness?

Mr. POPE: Absolutely. It's one of the front lines of where Turkey's going. We met some senior Turkish officials today and they hinted that they were thinking of trying to change this law but the fact is that this particular is now called Article 301. It was called various other names and basically goes back to the Ottoman Empire. And it's a law that the Turkish state has always kept in the cabinet for use against people that it disagrees with.

And the Nationalists and the conservative side of Turkey that does not want to open these old issues like the Armenian question and they want to hold the line there and they want to keep the country under strict rules. They don't want too many ideas floating about and so they will keep, probably, some form of a law on the books so that it can be used when someone feels it's necessary.

BRAND: Reporter Hugh Pope speaking to us from Istanbul about the charges being dropped against Orhan Pamuk for insulting Turkishness. And Hugh Pope, thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. POPE: You're welcome.

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