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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 September 2006, 09:01 GMT 10:01 UK
Turkish novelist case collapses
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Turkish novelist Elif Shafak
Elif Shafak hoped her novel would encourage empathy
In a village outside Istanbul, a sculptor is creating an enormous peace gesture.

Mehmet Aksoy has been commissioned to create a monument to stand on Turkey's eastern border with Armenia, closed now for more than a decade.

He is still carving out the hand, which will eventually form part of a human figure divided in two by prejudice.

"This hand will hang between the two halves of the figure," Mehmet explains. He describes the statue an act of friendship between neighbours.

"It will stretch out between them like a ray of hope, trying to bring the two together."

But there is a major obstacle to a real reunion between Turkey and Armenia.

'Autonomy of art'

Turkey fiercely disputes Armenia's claim that the deaths of tens of thousands of Armenians in 1915, in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, should be recognised as genocide.

It is a controversial chapter of history that Elif Shafak chose to explore in her latest novel, The Bastard Of Istanbul. The story unfolds around two families, one Turkish and one American-Armenian.

The words of a character could be used as evidence against the author or the film director
Elif Shafak

The best-selling author says she had hoped her novel might encourage empathy between nations. Instead she was charged with insulting Turkishness, under Article 301 of the penal code.

But the judges acquitted her soon after the trial opened on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence.

Elif Shafak is the latest in a long line of writers to face similar charges here. But this was the first time the law had been used against a work of fiction.

"If Article 301 will be interpreted in this way nobody can write novels in Turkey anymore, no-one can make movies any more," Elif Shafak warned.

"The words of a character could be used as evidence against the author or the film director. I think it is extremely important to defend the autonomy of art, and of literature."

Fact or fiction

The man who filed the complaint against Elif Shafak is a nationalist lawyer. His submission to the court claimed her novel was Armenian propaganda, dripping with hatred for the Turks.

Characters in a novel may be fictitious, but the authors are real
Kemal Kerincsiz

Kemal Kerincsiz has brought similar charges against around 40 writers now - many based on their comments on the Armenian issue - provoking serious concern in the EU about the state of Turkish democracy.

This time it was a novel, but the lawyer insists a work of fiction can be as dangerous and insulting as a work of fact.

"We are right to prosecute these cases," Kemal Kerincsiz argues. "Characters in a novel may be fictitious, but the authors are real. In our culture, no-one can brand their ancestors murderers. Maybe in the West they are more tolerant, but here we can't accept those comments as criticism."

The Turkish government is under strong pressure from Brussels to change Article 301 and prove its commitment to free speech if it is serious about joining the EU.

Nationalist backlash

As late as this week, ministers have argued there is no need since no-one has actually been sent to jail. Elif Shafak argues that her case shows how open the law is to misinterpretation and exploitation.

"We do not deserve this. This is not the law that should be applied to our own citizens and we need to do something about it. The question is, does the government lack either the will or the courage to take that step?"

Despite its sensitive subject matter The Bastard Of Istanbul was a bestseller long before the legal case hit the headlines here.

The events of 1915 were taboo in Turkey until very recently, so Elif Shafak sees her trial as part of a nationalist backlash against the way Turkey is gradually opening up and changing.

Most passers-by on one of Istanbul's main shopping streets agreed.

"The trial is ridiculous," one man said. "I am 100% supporting free speech and human rights and I think this should not be the way."

"She only wrote what she thought," a woman agreed. "It is only a book, it is normal I think. The court is not right."




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