ANKARA (Bloomberg)–Five of Turkey’s best-known columnists went on trial at an Istanbul court Tuesday–in a freedom-of-speech case that threatens to derail the country’s bid to join the European Union.
Hasan Cemal of the Milliyet newspaper and Ismet Berkan–Murat Belge–Haluk Sahin–and Erol Katircioglu of the daily Radikal face up to 10 years in prison. They criticized a judge for halting a September conference to discuss the Armenian genocide.
"These curbs are unacceptable if Turkey wants to prove that it’s democratic," said Oktay Eksi–head of the Turkish Press Council. "We will continue to fight these restrictions until we–or the EU–persuade the government to abolish them."
European Union officials say Turkey must conform to Western norms of free expression so as not to jeopardize membership talks that started on October 3. Turkey last month dropped charges against prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk–who had questioned the killing of over one million Armenia’s during the first World War.
Cemal and his colleagues appeared at Istanbul’s Bagcilar court of first instance for "insulting the judiciary," after prosecutors acted on a complaint from the Hukukcular Birligi–a nationalist group of lawyers based in Istanbul. The Armenian conference was to have convened at the city’s Bosphorus University on September 23. Organizers later moved the event to neighboring Bilgi University.
On Tuesday–the court adjourned the trial until April 11 after the prosecution asked for more time to study documen’s presented by the defense.
"This case is one of the bumps on the road to the EU," Cemal told Bloomberg in an interview at the Istanbul court. "I don’t expect a negative verdict. The reaction against freedom of expression in Turkey isn’t as violent as it used to be."
Turkey’s progress toward building a Western-style democracy has slackened since membership talks began–making 2006 a crucial test year for its quest to join the EU–Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. The accession process will probably last a decade or more.
Failure to win EU membership would jeopardize the Turkish government’s efforts to pull in foreign investment and reduce debt equivalent to 80 percent of economic output.
Hanefi Aktas–a lawyer for Hukukcular Birligi–was expelled from today’s hearing for calling presiding judge Muhterem Bulut a traitor after he refused to remove foreign observers from the courtroom. Representatives of the Committee to Protect Journalists and London-based Pen International attended the trial–as well as a delegation from the European Parliament.
The European Court of Human Rights last year found Turkey in violation of laws governing freedom of speech 39 times–double the total in 2004. The Strasbourg-based court ruled against the EU’s 25 members a total of seven times.
Rehn says the trial of the five columnists and similar legal proceedings are being sought by "nationalist-minded" prosecutors who are seeking to punish people for challenging state policy.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned down the EU’s appeals to alter the nation’s penal code–steps the bloc has requested in order to guarantee freedom of speech in the nation of 72 million people.
EU officials have vowed to monitor scores of other cases brought against lesser-known individuals for criticizing Turkish policy on issues including Armenia and treatment of the nation’s 12 million Kurds. Twenty-seven are due by June–said Jonathan Sugden–Turkey researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Even the EU’s politicians are not immune from prosecution in Turkey. An Istanbul court in December opened an investigation against European Parliament member Joost Lagendijk on charges of insulting the Turkish military. The probe was dropped on February 3–NTV television reported.
Lagendijk attended the first day of the columnists’ trial in Istanbul.
"The judge found there was no grounds in my case and this judge should find no grounds to this case," Lagendijk said in an interview at the courthouse. "Criticism of the judiciary–police and military is part and parcel of freedom of expression."
Recognizing the damage that the court cases might inflict on Turkey’s EU bid–the Justice Ministry last month issued a circular reminding judges that European human rights legislation must take precedence over Turkish law–a requirement written into the constitution two years ago.