By Nicolas Cheviron, AFP
A Turkish court suspended on Friday the high-profile trial against author Orhan Pamuk for insulting the nation amid violent demonstrations and EU warnings it could jeopardize the country's hopes of joining the bloc.
The ruling at the opening hearing to suspend the case until February 7 came in a brief but tense hearing marred by far-right demonstrators attacking and booing the author as he made his way into and out of the cramped courtroom amid throngs of reporters.
The court had ruled on December 2 that since the alleged offence was committed before Turkey amended its penal code earlier this year, Pamuk should be judged under the old law, which requires a direct order from the justice ministry for the trial to proceed. With no authorization coming by the time the hearing began, the court agreed to a prosecution request to suspend the trial until the ministry decides on whether or not to try Pamuk.
The ruling came despite opposition from Pamuk's lawyer, Haluk Inanici, who asked the court to either proceed and hear his client's testimony, or drop the case altogether.
The 53-year-old Pamuk, the much-translated author of internationally renowned works such as "My Name Is Red" and "Snow", is accused of "denigrating the Turkish national identity" in remarks published in a Swiss magazine concerning the Armenian massacres during World War I.
"One million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it," Pamuk told Das Magazin, causing public outcry at home that he was selling out national interests. He faces six months to three years in jail if convicted.
Friday's ruling was harshly criticized by members of the European Parliament attending as observers. The trial is widely seen as a test of freedom of expression in Turkey, which began membership talks with the EU in October. "It is a bad day. The government missed the chance to cancel the case and now risks a deterioration of Turkey's standing in Europe," Camiel Eurlings, the European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, told journalists.
Another European MP, Joost Lagendijk, warned that the continuation of the trial would spell trouble for Turkey's hopes of joining the EU. "If the government says at the end of the day, 'Yes, you can carry on with the trial, then Turkey is in big trouble," he said. "If new cases like this appear, the negotiating process will come to a halt," he warned, adding that Turkey should amend its penal code if it allows people to be jailed for expressing their opinions.
Turkey's Justice Minister Cemil Cicek, meanwhile, congratulated the court. "This is exactly what should have happened," Cicek said in Ankara, quoted by the Anatolia news agency. "If one asks a question, one should wait for the answer."
The hearing was tense throughout, with a woman demonstrator hitting Pamuk on the head with a folder as he was entering the courthouse amid chants of "traitor," and "sold out intellectuals." At the end of the hearing, several demonstrators tried to stop Pamuk's car by throwing themselves on the hood while others, making the sign of the nationalist Gray Wolves movement, threw eggs at people leaving the courthouse. Police took two demonstrators into custody, the CNN-Turk news channel said.
Inside the courtroom, lawyers not related to the case criticized members of the European parliament for attending the trial as observers. "You are not showing respect for the court. EU observers cannot come here to control the judges," one shouted.
Another European MP, Dennis McShane of Britain, told reporters that he was punched in the face in the corridors of the court building.
The Armenian question is one of the most sensitive issues in Turkish history. Armenians claim up to 1.5 million of their kinsmen died in a genocide orchestrated by Turkey's predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, in its final years of existence, while Turkey rejects the figures and categorically denies a genocide took place.
(GI-Photolur photo: Orhan Pamuk.)