By Gareth Jones, Reuters
A Turkish publisher could receive a jail sentence on Wednesday of up to three years for insulting national identity under a law the European Union says unfairly restricts freedom of speech and wants scrapped.
"Tomorrow's hearing may bring a final verdict in my trial, which began in 2005. The prosecutor wants the maximum penalty," publisher Ragip Zarakolu told Reuters on Tuesday.
Prosecutors accuse Zarakolu of insulting "Turkishness" under article 301 of Turkey's penal code for publishing a Turkish language translation of a book by London-based author George Jerjian called "The Truth Will Set Us Free". The book urges reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and covers the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One, a highly sensitive issue for Turkey.
Armenia, backed by many Western historians, says as many as 1.5 million of its people suffered systematic genocide at Turkish hands at that time. Turkey denies there was genocide and says many Muslim Turks as well as Christian Armenians were killed in inter-ethnic conflict as the Ottoman Empire collapsed under pressure of war. Affirming that the killings amounted to genocide is a criminal offence in Turkey. Nobel Literature Laureate Orhan Pamuk is among writers prosecuted for his comments on the events of 1915-16, though he was acquitted on a legal technicality.
"I am against all forms of restriction on free expression... I did not even write this book, but Turkish people have a right to know what Armenians think," said Zarakolu, head of the Belge International Publishers.
Zarakolu said he would appeal against any conviction. He has often been a target of Turkish prosecutors over the decades for his stance on freedom of expression and for publishing books the authorities have disapproved of.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's conservative government, under heavy EU pressure, is mulling ways of amending article 301, though analysts say the real problem lies not in the text but in the conservative mindset of many judges and prosecutors.
"The government could have changed the law already. It is a very dangerous article. If accusations depict writers and journalists as traitors or enemies of Turkey, it is not so simple to be in front of Turkish public opinion," said Zarakolu. "It opens the door to our being lynched or killed by ultra-nationalist gangs," he said, citing the example of prominent Turkish Armenian editor Hrant Dink who was shot dead in Istanbul in January by an ultra-nationalist youth.
Dink had been handed a suspended jail sentence under article 301 for his comments on the Armenian issue. Tens of thousands of people marched through Istanbul at his funeral to protest against ultra-nationalist violence.
Members of the European Parliament visiting Turkey this week said article 301 was harming Turkey's bid to join the EU. "This latest case underlines that the Turkish government's promise to reform article 301 cannot come too soon," Richard Howitt, a British Labor MEP, said in a statement.
"Authors expressing peaceful views should never lead to imprisonment. The Turkish government has understood this and it is now for the Turkish parliament to pass, and for the Turkish courts to respect," he said.