By Nicolas Cheviron, AFP
A Turkish court on Thursday acquitted a prize-winning author of charges of insulting the nation in a book over the massacres of Armenians during World War I, saving the government from fresh embarrassment in its ties with the European Union.
Brussels nonetheless warned Turkey that purging its penal code of restrictions on freedom of speech, and not the acquittal of Elif Shafak, would convince the bloc of Ankara's commitment to human rights and democracy norms.
"The commission welcomes this recent judgment, this is obviously good news," said the European Commission's enlargement spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy in Brussels. However, despite the positive development, the fact remains that a Turkish court interpretation of an article of its penal code last year "is not in line with the European Court of Human Rights or with European standards in the area of freedom of expression," Nagy told reporters.
The Turkish court cleared Shafak, 35, on lack of evidence shortly after the trial began in a cramped courtroom in central Istanbul under tight security in case of violence by nationalist protestors.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan Thursday welcomed the acquittal, saying his government was open to reform proposals to boost freedom of speech. "Of course, the ruling concerning Mrs. Shafak has pleased me," Erdogan was quoted as saying by Anatolia news agency after an Istanbul court cleared the novelist of charges of insulting the Turkish nation
The ruling came after the prosecutor assigned to the case argued that she had not "denigrated the Turkish national identity", as alleged, in her best-selling novel "The Bastard of Istanbul" or "Baba ve Pic" (The Father and the Bastard) in Turkish.
Shafak, who gave birth to her first child last week, was not present in the courtroom. She was facing up to three years in jail if convicted on the charges leveled under a controversial penal code article that has been used to prosecute a string of intellectuals for views considered to be dissident.
The indictment was based on remarks by fictional Armenian characters in "The Bastard of Istanbul", originally written in English and released in Turkey in March 2006, becoming an instant bestseller. One of the book's characters speaks of "Turkish butchers" of a "genocide" while others talk about being "slaughtered like sheep" during the 1915 1917 massacres.
Shafak hailed her acquittal, but expressed concern over what she called a "culture of lynching" emerging against dissident views in Turkey. "I am very happy with the ruling, but I am concerned about what happened outside the courthouse," she told NTV television. "I am concerned about an idea that has recently developed in Turkey, the idea that 'those who do not think like us are cooperating with the enemy'," she said.
After the hearing, there were short-lived scuffles outside the courthouse between supporters of Shafak and the group of nationalist lawyers who instigated the charges against the author for challenging the official line on the Armenian massacres. Police immediately stepped in to prevent the incident from developing and detained two people, NTV reported.
Shafak's trial was seen by the EU as a test of freedom of speech in Turkey, which began membership talks with the bloc on October 4 and is facing growing criticism for failing to implement rights reforms. Joost Lagendijk, a senior member of the European Parliament, said that Shafak's trial clearly demonstrated the need for Turkey to cleanse its penal code of restrictions on freedom of speech.
"I am happy for Shafak, but I believe Article 301 (of the Turkish penal code) must be amended," Lagendijk told AFP after the court hearing which he followed as an observer. "If not, there will be similar cases. Only the amendment of the article will satisfy the European Union," he said.
The EU, which is set to next month issue a report on Turkey's progress in membership talks, has already urged Ankara to amend the article to guarantee freedom of expression. Erdogan signaled the Turkish government might move to reform the provision, even though he insisted freedoms cannot be "limitless," Anatolia reported.
"The ruling party and the opposition can sit down together again to discuss this issue as laws are not eternal," he said. Referring to widespread criticism that the article is too vague and leaves too much room for interpretation, Erdogan said: "If there are alternative proposals to make it more concrete, we are ready to consider them."
Shafak's novel is a gripping tale between Istanbul and San Francisco of four generations of Turkish women and an American-Armenian family, the descendants of survivors of the massacres.
Armenians assert that up to 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered in what was a genocide between 1915 and 1917, as the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey's predecessor, was falling apart. Categorically rejecting the genocide label, Turkey argues that 300,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with Russian troops invading the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
Much to Ankara's ire, the massacres have been recognized as a genocide by many countries. A taboo for decades, the Armenian killings have only recently become the subject of a tentative public debate, often sending nationalist sentiment into a frenzy.