Human Rights House Foundation

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Image: PEN International members in the meeting with Turkey's President Abdullah Gül on 13.11.2012. 

PEN delegation in Turkey: promises are no consolation for our colleagues in prison

This week a delegation of 20 PEN members from around the world, including English PEN director Jo Glanville, met with the Turkish President Abdullah Gül, Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bağış and president of the Human Rights Association Öztürk Türkdoğan. The delegation called for release and reform of laws stifling Turkey’s writers, publishers, translators, and journalists.

Sunday, 18 November 2012, by HRH London, based on English PEN press releases.

PEN members from Japan, Switzerland, Lebanon, the United States, Turkey, Norway, Canada, and the United Kingdom in the meetings with Turkey’s officials “conveyed the seriousness and urgency of PEN’s concern over the rising tide of trials of their colleagues in Turkey”.

On 13 November the delegation met with the President Abdullah Gül. The President expressed his personal commitment to free speech and assured the delegation that he has been following the cases of imprisoned writers, journalists and publishers closely.

President: these concerns cast a shadow over our progress

“There are many good things unfolding in Turkey, but these concerns cast a shadow over the progress we are achieving”, the president told PEN. “They also have international repercussions. These developments deeply sadden me, and as President, I more than anyone else want to see that they are resolved and no longer on the country’s agenda”.

The PEN delegation presented the president with an outline of PEN’s concerns, including key cases of writers, journalists, and publishers who are either in prison or on trial in Turkey.

PEN requested that the government immediately review all such cases to ensure that no one is being penalized for the legitimate exercise of the right to peaceful freedom of expression, and release all those currently detained, imprisoned, or facing prosecution in violation of this right.

Anti-Terror Law needs to be reformed

The delegation conveyed to the president PEN’s specific concerns about Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law, which defines offenses too broadly and is applied inconsistently and often against those who have not supported, plotted, or carried out acts of terrorism or violence.

The PEN members underlined that reforms to Turkey’s Anti-Terror Law are needed, to clearly distinguish between incitement to violence and the expression of non-violent, if controversial, ideas and an end to lengthy pre-trial detentions and legal proceedings that can drag on for years.

President Gül reiterated his belief that the best way to combat and isolate terrorism is to raise the standards of democracy, and argued that “terrorist groups are uneasy about democratic reforms in Turkey, and that they increase terrorist acts to undermine this process”.

“President Gül’s recognition of the negative impact of free speech violations on Turkey’s future is important. We were particularly encouraged by his personal commitment to freedom of expression and to the promotion of fundamental rights as the best, most effective tool against terrorism”, PEN International president John Ralston Saul said after the meeting. “As for our colleagues who are in prison in Turkey, we hope that today's meeting will help speed their release”.

“This meeting will contribute to democratization in Turkey”, said Tarık Günersel, President of PEN Turkey and one of 20 representatives from around the world who are in Turkey this week to raise PEN’s concerns. “President Gül understands and supports our concerns regarding freedom of expression and human rights in Turkey”.

The delegation also met with the Minister for European Union Affairs Egemen Bağış and Öztürk Türkdoğan, president of the Human Rights Association.

Democratic reforms do not help imprisoned journalists

On 15 November the writers held a press conference in Istambul in which they called on the government of Turkey to take “quick and concrete action” to reverse an alarming rise in the number of writers, journalists, translators and publishers who are in prison or on trial in the country.

“We recognize that Turkey has seen important gains in democratization and civil and political rights in recent years, and we believe the momentum for reform is ongoing”, PEN International president John Ralston Saul said.

“But for our many colleagues currently in prison or on trial — including members of PEN Turkey — processes and promises are no consolation. We are asking the government of Turkey to act now to ensure that no-one is being penalized for practising the right to peaceful freedom of expression, and to release all who may be held in violation of that right”, he added.

Three disappointing cases

At the news conference, delegation member and PEN Turkey president Tarık Günersel spoke about three cases emblematic of the serious situation in Turkey: the human rights lawyer Muharrem Erbey, in pre-trial detention for almost three years; translator Ayşe Berktay, in detention for one year and accused of being the “international advocate” of the banned organization KCK; and journalist Mustafa Balbay, in prison since 2009, facing charges ranging from membership in an unlawful organisation to attempting to provoke an armed uprising.

All of them, Günersel insisted, have in fact been detained for peaceful expression. These are just three of many cases on PEN’s list, Günersel emphasized, noting that in every case the rights violation extends to family and friends as well, all of whom endure uncertainty and financial hardship and the stigma of being branded terrorists or criminals.

Day of the Imprisoned Writer commemorated

After the news conference, the international delegation, members of PEN Turkey and writers from around the world joined together for an afternoon of multilingual readings commemorating writers at risk. For more than 30 years, 15 November has been designated as the Day of the Imprisoned Writer in PEN centres around the World, a day on which PEN members honour their imprisoned, threatened and murdered colleagues

“It is unfortunate that at this event the texts we are reading include the writings of so many of our colleagues from this country”, Saul said. “It is our sincere hope that at this time next year we will instead be able to celebrate their release and the end of these draining and damaging legal proceedings”.

The PEN International delegation was in Turkey for meetings with officials, politicians, members of the diplomatic community in Ankara, and with writers and publishers in Istanbul. On 17-18 November, PEN hosted panel discussions at the Istanbul Book Fair.

Here you can read the Reporters Without Borders article about the last trial of 44 detained Turkish journalists.

HRH London, based on English PEN press releases.

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