Turkey: Free-speech issue remains a sensitive subject
|Publication Date||15 July 2008|
|Cite as||EurasiaNet, Turkey: Free-speech issue remains a sensitive subject, 15 July 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/489ac4c6c.html [accessed 22 May 2013]|
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Nicholas Birch: 7/15/08
Under ordinary circumstances, Mehmet Tursun's emotional outburst probably would have been overlooked, given that he suspects police of trying to cover up the fact they had shot his son for failing to stop his car for an identity check.
But in Turkey, where the free-speech issue remains a touchstone of controversy, devotees of the existing order are not taking lightly anything that seems to threaten the system. As a result, Tursun is facing charges of insulting the judiciary and security police. He could receive a two-year prison sentence if convicted during his trial, due to start July 15.
The case against Tursun stems from comments he made in May during the trial of 10 policemen charged with falsifying evidence after his son's death. Nineteen-year-old Baran Tursun died last November after he lost control of his car in the western Turkish city of Izmir. A police report blamed his death on the crash. A surgeon found a police bullet in his brain.
The police then changed tack. "I fired five shots into the air and one at the car wheels," said the officer charged with the death.
Police released photographs of bullet fragments on the front passenger seat of Tursun's car, proof, they claim, that there was a ricochet. But the fragments were absent from photographs taken by local journalists immediately after the crash.
Angered by the way the judge appeared to be helping the police officers with their statements in court, Mehmet Tursun said: "you are a judge, stop correcting the contradictions in the policemen's statements. What kind of a judge are you?"
He was promptly indicted under a notorious insult law used against dozens of intellectuals, including the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk, and Hrant Dink, the Armenian-Turkish editor gunned down by a nationalist assassin in January 2007.
After years of pressure from the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join, officials in Ankara finally revised Article 301 of the Criminal Code this April. Judges now need permission from the Justice Ministry to continue with prosecutions.
A second 301 case Tursun faces for telling journalists he has "no faith in Turkish justice" is currently on hold, pending a green light from the ministry. The changes to Article 301 have led to an 80 percent reduction in the number court cases, and as intended an end to the high profile prosecutions that so damaged Turkey's international reputation.
But less prominent Turks are still threatened by a law otherwise left unchanged, barring the replacement of a phrase about "insulting Turkishness" with the equally vague "insulting the Turkish nation."
"The aim [of 301 prosecutions] is to intimidate, to try and silence those trying to draw attention to their cases", says Mithat Sancar, a law professor at Ankara University.
"In Turkey, the judiciary, police and the armed forces see themselves as the three legs of a body whose role is to defend the state," he adds. Laws like 301 only strengthen that mentality.
A wealthy contractor who builds facilities for the military, Mehmet Tursun says he would be "honored" to go to prison for his son, adding that the publicity a 301 trial would bring would make it less easy for the trial of the policemen to be quietly dropped.
"If the Ministry gives the go-ahead, it will only mean the state getting its hands dirtier," he says. "That is when the media will drop the real bombs."
Yet he has good reason to be guarded in his optimism. Extensive local media coverage of the trial of four policemen who shot a 12-year-old Kurdish boy in 2004 was not enough to protect the victim's family from similar charges.
Police claimed Ugur Kaymaz and his father were members of the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and that there had been a shoot-out. The coroner found nine bullets in the boy's back, most fired from less than three feet away.
"Legitimate self-defense," the judge said on April 17 last year, acquitting four policemen of murder charges.
"Yes, terrorists were involved, but the terrorists were those who shot my brother and my nephew," Resat Kaymaz said after the verdict.
While Ugur Kaymaz's mother was acquitted of charges of "membership of a terror organization," he was convicted last year under article 301 of "insulting state security forces" and fined 3,000 lira (US$2,500), a sum he says he cannot afford.
Turkey's High Court has yet to rule on his appeal.
While they have diminished in recent years, cases like Ugur Kaymaz's remain relatively common in Turkey's war-torn southeast. Police shootings in the wealthier west of the country are much less common, and many think Baran Tursun was an indirect victim of a law passed by the government a month before he died that expanded police power to search and arrest suspected wrong-doers.
"The police were upset by restrictions imposed on them through European Union reforms," says Nazan Sakalli, an Izmir lawyer who specializes in torture cases. "I think they saw this law and thought 'we can do whatever we like,' like cops in an American film."
Tursun's death does appear to have sparked soul-searching. On average, three or four people are killed by police bullets every year in Izmir. There have been no fatalities since last November.
"It's a start," says Bahattin Ozdemir, a leading Izmir human rights lawyer who is representing the Tursun family in court. "But we need a change of mentalities, and that will take a long time."
Editor's Note: Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.
Posted July 15, 2008 © Eurasianet