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AFP
A Turkish court Monday dropped charges against best-selling author Orhan Pamuk for a reference he made to the mass killings of Armenians 90 years ago, halting a case that had cast doubt on Turkey's commitment to freedom of speech.

"The case has been dropped. There will be no hearing as scheduled on February 7," Pamuk's lawyer, Haluk Inanici, told AFP. He said that recent penal code reforms had stripped the justice ministry of the right to authorize the prosecution of such cases, leading the court to abandon the trial.

The European Commission immediately welcomed the decision, but urged Ankara to further review statutes restricting freedom of expression under which several other intellectuals have been charged.

Pamuk, 53, the winner of a slew of literary awards, risked six months to three years in jail for "denigrating the Turkish national identity" in remarks published in a Swiss magazine about the mass killings of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire 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, who has gained fame at home and abroad for such books as "My Name is Red" and "Snow", told Das Magazin in February.

Turkey categorically rejects portrayals of the killings -- which took place between 1915 and 1917 as the Ottoman Empire was in its last throes -- as genocide and has been sensitive to accounts of the bloodshed. It challenges counts that up to 1.5 million Armenians died, arguing that the figure was 300,000, and that at least as many Turks died in the civil strife which occurred when the Armenians rebelled in eastern Anatolia and sided with Russian troops invading the crumbling empire.

The case against Pamuk was launched by a group of Turkish anti-EU lawyers which has lodged similar lawsuits against an ethnic Armenian journalist and a senior European parliament member. The court had adjourned Pamuk's trial at the first hearing on December 16 on the grounds that it needed the justice ministry's authorization to proceed. Critics of the charges had claimed nationalist elements in the judiciary opposed to Turkey's EU membership bid were pushing the case in a bid to undermine Turkey's efforts to meet the legal and democratic standards needed to one day join the European Union.

In Brussels, EU enlargement chief Olli Rehn hailed the court's decision to throw out the case, but pressed Ankara over similar cases and urged the country to review its law. "This is obviously good news for Mr Pamuk, but it's also good news for freedom of expression in Turkey," Rehn said in a statement.

He said he hoped the developments in Pamuk's case would help ease the plight of other writers and intellectuals being persecuted in Turkey. "Several journalists, editors, writers and academics still face similar charges today," he said. "I hope therefore that the decision on Orhan Pamuk's case will pave the way for a positive outcome for them as well, so that freedom of expression for all Turkish citizens is fully respected."
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