Turkey: Free-Speech Issue Remains A Sensitive Subject

Nicholas Birch

July 15 2008

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. [For background see the
Eurasia Insight archive].

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. [For background see
the Eurasia Insight archive].

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."