STATUS: On Trial
The director and owner of Belge Publishing House, Ragip Zarakolu has been subject to a lifetime of harassment from the Turkish authorities. After graduating college in 1968, Zarakolu began writing for magazines such as Ant and Yeni Ufuklar, both of which focused on issues of social justice in Turkey. In 1971, a military government assumed power in Turkey and instituted a crackdown on writers it deemed subversive. Following a conviction and a three-year stay in prison, Zarakolu steadfastly refused to abandon his campaign for freedom of thought, striving for an "attitude of respect for different thoughts and cultures to become widespread in Turkey." Since his writings were repeatedly banned in Turkey for their criticism of the country's military regime, Zarakolu began to turn his attention to abuses of human rights by governments in South America and elsewhere.
In 1977, Zarakolu and his wife Ayse Nur founded the Belge Publishing House, which has been a focus for censorship since its inception. Its publications have not only drawn the government's ire. Zarakolu's office was firebombed by an extremist rightist group in 1995, forcing it to be housed in a cellar. Despite the death of his wife in 2002, Zarakolu has continued to publish writings critical of human rights violations around the world, especially in his native Turkey.
Ragip Zarakolu was arrested along with more than 40 people on October 28, 2011. Turkish authorities have arrested up to 1,000 scholars, writers, publishers, and rights advocates during a two-year crackdown targeting activists who focus on Kurdish issues. Zarakolu’s son, Deniz Zarakolu, who is an editor at Belge Publishing House and a Ph.D. student at Bilgi University, was arrested weeks earlier, on October 7.
On March 19, 2012, Zarakolu was formally indicted under the charge of "aiding and abetting an illegal organization" under Turkey's sweeping anti-terror laws, for which he could receive up to 15 years in prison if convicted. He is among 193 defendants named in the indictment. He was release pending trial on April 10, 2012.
Zarakolu's staunch belief in freedom of expression, his vocal campaign against book bannings, and his persistence in publishing works that violate Turkey's repressive censorship laws have resulted in a catalog of indictments dating back to the early 1970s.
His aforementioned 1971 conviction and three-year imprisonment stemmed from accusations by Turkey's new military government that Zarakolu was in cahoots with an international communist organization. In the 30 years since his release, Zarakolu has continued to defy Turkey's censorship laws, especially Article 312 of Turkey's Penal Code, which outlaws "making divisive propaganda via publication." The Belge Publishing House operated under a barrage of charges brought by Turkish authorities against Zarakolu and his wife. Over the years, such charges resulted in further imprisonment for the couple, the wholesale confiscation and destruction of books, and the imposition of heavy fines. Zarakolu's wife passed away in 2002.
In December 2004, Zarakolu was first charged for publishing a Turkish translation of British author George Jerjian’s book The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled under Article 159 of the Turkish penal code, which made it illegal to “insult or belittle” various state institutions. That article was replaced in March 2005 with the now-infamous Article 301, a new version of the insult law that conservative prosecutors have since used against dozens of writers, journalists, and publishers in Turkey. Article 301was slightly amended on April 30, 2008.
On June 17, 2008, Zarakolu was convicted of “insulting the State” under Article 301 for publishing Jerjian’s book. He was sentenced to a five-month prison term, which was reportedly subsequently commuted to a fine. He is appealing the conviction.
On May 3, 2007, Zarakolu was acquitted of similar charges under Article 301 in another case for the publication of Professor Dora Zakayan’s book, An American Doctor in Turkey: Garabed Hatcherian: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922. This case had its first hearing in August 2005, when the prosecutor demanded a six-year prison sentence for Zarakolu for “insulting the Army” and also “insulting Turkishness” by publishing this book. Attila Tuygan, the translator of Dora Skayan’s book, testified as a defense witness and stated that as translator of the book, he held himself responsible. As a result, Zarakolu was acquitted, but a new trial against the book under Article 301, with Tuygan held responsible, is still expected.
On June 10, 2010, a court acquitted Ragip Zarakolu of “spreading propaganda” for the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) under Article 7/2 of the Anti-Terror Law for publishing Mehmet Güler’s book More Difficult Decisions Than Death. The case was initiated in May 2009, when the prosecutor initially stated that some parts of the novel evoke sympathy for the PKK, but at a hearing on November 19, 2009, the prosecutor then pointed out that no crime had been committed and called for the two to be released. However, at the next hearing on March 25, 2010, another prosecutor expressed the opposite view—that the book does provide terrorist propaganda. Mehmet Güler was convicted on the same charge and sentenced to 15 months in prison, but remains free pending appeal.
On March 10, 2011, Ragip Zarakolu was convicted of spreading propaganda to support the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) under article 7/2 of the Anti Terror Law, following the publication of Mehmet Güler’s book The KCK File/The Global State and Kurds Without a State. Zarakolu was sentenced to a fine, and Güler to a 15-month suspended prison term.
Zaraklolu and Güler both deny the accusation that the book promotes violence and state that they are both committed to greater understanding of—and a peaceful resolution to—Kurdish issues.
The first hearing took place September 30, 2010, and was attended by Maureen Freely, writer and translator of Orhan Pamuk’s recent novels, and Johann Hari, journalist for the Independent newspaper, on behalf of English PEN. PEN Sweden also sent two representatives, the writer and PEN board member Firat Ceweri, and the writer Maria Modig. Zarakolu did not attend the trial due to ill health, although the court issued a writ compelling him to attend. The trial was then postponed until December 2, 2010.