Joan Smith reports on Orhan Pamuk’s trial hearing

The hearing: the first court appearance of the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has been charged with denigrating Turkish identity under article 301 of the new penal code, took place in Sisli, Istanbul, at 11am on 16 December 2005. It was attended by many international observers, including myself for English PEN, Karin Clark and Eugene Schoulgin for International PEN, delegations from the European Parliament and Human Rights Watch, a barrister representing a Kurdish human rights organisation, several European consuls and Chris Kealey from Pera House, the British consulate in Istanbul. The hearing attracted a huge number of journalists, from Turkish news organisations and the international press.

The district court in Sisli is a nondescript modern building and I had been warned in advance that it was nowhere near large enough to accommodate all the people who wished to attend the trial (including, of course, a number of translators). I arrived around 9.15am and found a scene of complete chaos. I passed through a scanner and went up to the third floor, where the space outside the tiny courtroom quickly filled up with observers, journalists, Orhan’s supporters and increasing numbers of riot police. The latter lined the stairs and the walls, wearing helmets and carrying semi-automatic weapons, but at no point did I see them intervene to protect Orhan or anybody else.

I was mystified by the arrival of at least a dozen men wearing suits under black robes with shiny red collars, who turned out to belong to a far-right (nationalist) lawyers’ group. Fifteen minutes before the trial was due to begin, these men elbowed and shoved their way through the crowd, forcing their way into the court. When the rest of us were allowed inside, around 90 people surged into the room, which had room only for about 30, making conditions difficult and uncomfortable.

When the hearing began, the judge appeared to have little or no control over the proceedings. He looked only once at Orhan, who stood in front of him throughout the 45-minute hearing, and at times was shouted down by the right-wing lawyers who had crowded into the space to Orhan’s left. Outside the court, I could hear shouts and jeers, suggesting that there would be trouble from nationalist demonstrators at the end of the hearing.

In essence, the lawyers demanded that the ‘Europeans’ be cleared from the court, turning and shouting insults at us – a request which the judge did at least resist. They insisted they were present as complainants, prosecutors and witnesses – they claimed their individual Turkishness had been insulted by Orhan – and got into a shouting match with the judge, who said they could not appear in several roles. The proceedings were very slow, as the judge summarised what each person had said for the court reporter. Orhan said nothing, allowing his lawyer to speak on his behalf.

After 45 minutes, the judge announced that he was adjourning the hearing until a date to be announced later (7 February 2006). In effect, he has thrown the case back to the Justice Minister, Cemil Cicek, to whom he had already written on a point of procedure. In his letter before the hearing, the judge pointed out that Orhan had been charged under the new penal code, which came into effect only in June 2005, when he made the ‘offending’ remark in February. The judge suggested that article 159 of the old penal code should have been used, which (unlike article 301) requires the consent of the Justice Minister to proceed. Officials from the British consulate, whom I met the day before the trial, thought there was a good chance that this would happen and get everyone off the hook, but Cicek did not respond. Now the judge has put him on the spot by directly asking whether or not he should proceed.

When the hearing was over, I and the other observers were swept down three flights of stairs through lines of riot police. It was noisy and confusing, actually a little frightening, and outside in the street there was a melee of journalists and nationalist protesters. They surged forward and the nationalists began yelling abuse about Iraq, accusing Orhan’s British supporters of being murderers. One man was screaming in my face and if there hadn’t been so many journalists present to act as a buffer, I don’t know what would have happened. I didn’t see Orhan leave the court, although I subsequently heard from Turkish and British journalists that he was pelted with eggs by people shouting ‘traitor’ and ‘Jew’; his car was attacked and his windscreen cracked as he was driven away. My personal view is that we were lucky to get through it without anyone, particularly Orhan, being seriously injured.

Since then, there have been reports that further charges may be filed against Orhan, for insulting the Turkish army. Immediately after Christmas, Abdullah Gul, the Turkish Foreign Minister, was quoted as having said that the law would have to be changed after a prosecutor even threatened to bring a case against a Dutch MEP for insulting Turkish identity.

Pamuk is caught up in a ferocious political struggle about Turkey’s role in the modern world, which limits the government’s room for manoeuvre. This is also true of the other defendants in article 301 prosecutions, but he is the best known and has become the focus of a frightening degree of hatred. The situation for the 60 or so authors, academics and journalists facing similar prosecutions is pretty dire. My feeling, I’m afraid, is that this is a crisis of the Turkish state which may amount to an attempt to intimidate and destroy the intelligentsia.

3 January 2006

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