MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Turkey, some of the country's most prominent writers and journalists have been taken to court over the past year. They've been accused of violating a controversial law which makes it a crime to insult Turkish national identity. This law has become a problem for the Turkish government, which is trying to enact reforms and become the first Muslim member of the European union.
NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Istanbul.
IVAN WATSON: The latest battle in Turkey's conflict over freedom of speech revolved around Elif Safak, one of the country's most famous living writers. She was accused of breaking article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which states, quote, "Anyone who publicly denigrates Turkishness, the Turkish Republic or the Turkish Parliament will face up to six years in jail."
Amid international and domestic uproar, the judge dismissed the charges against Safak at a trial that lasted only a few minutes. The novelist called it a positive step.
Ms. ELIF SAFAK: The problem is as article 301 is out there and it is misinterpreted like this, it's open to further exploitation by ultra nationalists and there will be many other cases.
WATSON: The case against Safak was based on quotes in her last novel, which referred to the 1915 massacre of ethnic Armenians in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. In a similar case last year, Hrant Dink, the editor of an Armenian language newspaper in Istanbul, was convicted of insulting Turkish identity. He received a six month suspended jail sentence and now faces new charges over remarks he made in a subsequent interview.
Mr. HRANT DINK: (Through translator) I don't know, I don't want to. But if they put me in jail because I said there was Armenian genocide, I would feel proud about it.
WATSON: Many of the recent cases against Turkish intellectuals involve the debate over Armenian claims that Ottoman Turks committed genocide with the slaughter of more than a million Armenians. Turkey's official version is that rival ethnic groups massacred each other as they fought for primacy during World War I.
Eighty years later, Turkish nationalists say they need laws like Article 301 to protect Turkey's national identity.
Mr. OKTAY VURAL (Nationalist Movement Party): There are always accusations of Turkey. You know, they're trying to change us.
WATSON: Oktay Vural is a leader of the Nationalist Movement Party. He's also a fierce critic of the European Union and of the many reforms he says Turkey is being forced to adopt to one day become a member of the EU.
Mr. VURAL: Strategically, they're playing with you. They want to control you, they want to control every your policy, but they don't give that you can be a member.
WATSON: Fresh from her acquittal, novelist Elif Shafak says nationalists are using the trials against writers to sabotage Turkey's EU negotiations.
Ms. SHAFAK: I don't think I was the main target there. I think the main target is Turkey's EU process, and they want to block that process.
WATSON: European officials have called Article 301 undemocratic. At the same time, the Armenian genocide dispute has gotten more and more attention in Europe, especially among politicians opposed to Turkey's EU membership.
The French Parliament is expected to vote next week on a law which would make denial of the genocide a crime punishable by up to a year in jail. If the French law passes, Armenian editor Hrant Dink says he will travel to France and deny the genocide, just to defend the principle of freedom of expression. This Turkish Armenian accuses both European and Turkish politicians of making a political football out of the memory of his ancestors.
Mr. DINK: (Through translator) Those who use this Armenian issue as a political tool are massacring my people over and over again.
WATSON: Ivan Watson, NPR News, Istanbul.
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