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Last Updated: Monday, 28 January 2008, 16:33 GMT
Academic sentenced over Ataturk
By Sarah Rainsford
BBC News, Istanbul

Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, file photo November 2007
Ataturk is widely revered in Turkey
A Turkish court has handed down a 15-month suspended jail term to an academic found guilty of insulting the state's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Professor Atilla Yayla said the trial highlighted the limits on free speech and academic debate in Turkey.

His crime was to suggest in academic discussion that the early Turkish republic was not as progressive as portrayed in official books.

His lawyers say they will lodge an immediate appeal.

Professor Yayla told the BBC he was prepared to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary.

"I want to emphasise again and again that Turkey's most pressing problem is freedom of expression," he said.

Professor Atilla Yayla
Turkey should evolve into being a country where people are not punished because of their thoughts
Prof Atilla Yayla

The prosecutor had asked the judge to impose a five-year prison sentence.

This trial has become a test of academic freedom in Turkey, which is pursuing a long-term ambition to become an EU member.

Mr Yayla had also warned that, as Turkey moved closer to Europe, Europeans would inevitably question why Turks displayed so many pictures and statues of Ataturk.

The professor was vilified by parts of the Turkish press, suspended from work at an Ankara university, and brought to trial.

Mr Yayla, a well-known liberal, denied the charge of insulting Ataturk and argued that academics must be guaranteed freedom of expression to pursue their research.

'Insulting Turkishness'

The Turkish parliament is preparing to debate amending another law that restricts free speech.

Article 301 on "insulting Turkishness" has been used to prosecute dozens of writers and intellectuals, including Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

"Many foreign observers concentrate on Article 301, but there are other laws and articles in different laws, which have the potential to restrict freedom of expression, as it is in my case," Mr Yayla told the BBC.

"What is important is that Turkey should evolve into being a country where people are not punished because of their thoughts. And to achieve this we ought to make reforms in the whole legal system and also change the mentality in the judiciary. Otherwise Turkey will go on suffering."

The EU has been pressing for a change to Article 301 for well over a year, but the government has faced stiff opposition from nationalists, both within the ruling party and in the opposition.

But changes to the law which protects Ataturk are not up for discussion.

Turkey faces testing year ahead
02 Jan 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Turkey
04 Dec 07 |  Country profiles
Turkey could rethink insult law
03 Oct 07 |  Europe

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