Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk is being investigated by the Turkish state for “insulting” the founder of modern Turkey and ridiculing the Turkish flag in his new novel Nights of Plague.
Pamuk, who denies the accusations, published the book in Turkey in March. The first complaint against the book – set on a fictional Ottoman island during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the early 1900s – came in April, when a lawyer accused Pamuk of inciting “hatred and animosity” by insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and ridiculing the flag of Turkey in the work. An Istanbul court decided not to take the claim forward due to lack of evidence, but the lawyer who brought the case, Tarcan Ülük, appealed against the decision and the investigation has now been reopened.
Pamuk was previously prosecuted for “insulting Turkishness” after raising the 1915 killings of Armenians and Kurds in an interview. Those charges were dropped in 2006 – the same year Pamuk won the Nobel prize for literature, praised as an author who “in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures”.
Law 5816, under which Pamuk is now being investigated, is intended to protect “the memory of Atatürk” from insult by any Turkish citizen. If found guilty, Pamuk faces up to three years in prison.
In a statement to Bianet, Pamuk denied the latest charges. “In Nights of Plague, which I worked on for five years, there is no disrespect for the heroic founders of the nation states founded from the ashes of empires or for Atatürk. On the contrary, the novel was written with respect and admiration for these libertarian and heroic leaders,” he said.
He was backed by free speech organisations around the world, who urged authorities not to prosecute him. “Orhan Pamuk is Turkey’s national treasure, a literary asset whose words reverberate across the globe and should be celebrated as such, yet he finds himself once again targeted for his writings,” said PEN International president Burhan Sönmez. “The Turkish authorities have repeatedly used criminal defamation laws to silence those who dare to speak out, and this case is no exception.”
“These baseless accusations have already been dismissed in court,” added Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of free expression at risk programs at PEN America. “The reopening of the investigation, despite the lack of evidence and [the] initial court decision not to prosecute the case, points to the overall climate of repression against writers in Turkey and demonstrates how the legal system enables appalling authoritarian restrictions on free expression and creativity.”
According to PEN America, at least 25 writers were jailed last year by the Turkish government, the third-highest number globally. The Turkish Publishers Association also called on prosecutors to drop the investigation. “Court cases such as this pose a huge burden on the time and resources of publishers and writers, creating an atmosphere of threat and tension,” it said in a statement translated by Bianet. “Such interferences, which turn into de facto bans on books, harm the principle of democratic society and we call on the authorities to take concrete steps to immediately end the investigation.”
Daniel Gorman, Director of English PEN, said: “The fact that an investigation has been launched highlights the significant restrictions on freedom of expression faced by writers in Turkey today. We urge Turkish authorities to drop the case against him, and we continue to campaign against ongoing attempts by the Turkish government to silence writers.”