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Top PEN Prize to Honor Jailed Turkish Translator Ayşe Berktay

April 15, 2013

Ayşe Berktay in Bakırköy Women’s Prison. Photo courtesy Ali Berktay

New York City—PEN American Center today named Ayşe Berktay, a translator, writer, and activist in Turkey, as the recipient of its 2013 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. Berktay, a leading advocate for peace, women’s rights, and Kurdish rights in Turkey, was arrested on October 3, 2011, and is currently being tried for “membership in an illegal organization” for her pro-Kurdish cultural advocacy. One of at least 130 writers currently in prison or on trial in Turkey, many on false terrorism-related charges, she could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.

The award, which honors international writers who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 30, 2013, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“Ayşe Berktay is a brave, clear, passionate voice for women’s rights and cultural rights in Turkey, and she absolutely should not be in prison,” said PEN American Center President Peter Godwin. “As a translator and as a peaceful activist, her life has been shaped by the desire to bridge cultures and convey truths that challenge official orthodoxies and histories. That this could be somehow labeled terrorism reveals a great deal about Turkey today—a country that, despite so much progress in so many areas, is now prosecuting scores of writers and journalists, most of them on specious terrorism charges. This award, which honors Ayşe Berktay’s courage, signals PEN’s determination to reverse this disturbing trend. The Turkish government can begin by arranging her immediate release.”

Police arrested Berktay and raided her home at 5:00 a.m. on October 3, 2011, and seized personal papers and materials, though no arrest or search warrant had been issued. She was eventually charged under Turkey’s anti-terror legislation of “membership in an illegal organization” for allegedly “planning to stage demonstrations aimed at destabilizing the state, plotting to encourage women to throw themselves under police vehicles so as to create a furor, and attending meetings outside Turkey on behalf of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK),” a banned pro-Kurdish party. The indictment specifically refers to international conferences she attended, where she is accused of having served as the organization’s “international advocate.” Ayşe Berktay is one of more than 1,800 people, including many writers and academics, who have been swept up in mass arrests of supporters of Kurdish rights in Turkey. Berktay is a member of the pro-Kurdish Party for Peace and Democracy (BDP), which has 36 elected representatives in the Turkish Parliament.

PEN has long campaigned against the use of anti-terrorism legislation to justify the jailing of writers, publishers, journalists, academics, and politicians in Turkey. In November 2012, a PEN International delegation visited Ankara to express concern about the alarming rise in prosecutions of writers and journalists in the last two years, noting that more than 70 writers and journalists are currently in prison, and at least 60 other writers, publishers, and journalists are on trial—ensnared in legal processes that can last years. While government officials, including Turkish President Abdullah Gül, acknowledged that the spike in trials of writers is casting a shadow over more positive trends in democratization and economic development in Turkey, prosecutions continue and new cases are being opened all the time—including one against seven Board Members and the webmaster of PEN Turkey, who could face charges under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which prohibits insults to the Turkish Republic, Turkish ethnicity, and Turkish governmental institutions. The investigation relates to an official PEN Turkey protest of the trial of well-known composer Fazil Say for tweets that were allegedly “insulting to religion.”

In announcing the award today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems praised Ayşe Berktay’s “tremendous courage in standing up one for PEN’s most cherished values: the right to speak and read in one’s mother tongue, and the beautiful effort to translate languages across borders.”

“Far from a terrorist, Ayşe Berktay has dedicated herself to promoting peace in Turkey and around the world,” Siems continued. “She has done so through her passion for language as a birthright for Kurds in Turkey, through her works as a translator to carry information and ideas across cultures, and her tireless advocacy for the rights of women to participate in, and help drive, political discussions in her country and internationally. She exemplifies PEN’s faith in the power of word and its commitment to protect the right of all to exercise full freedom of expression. We are proud to honor her with this year’s award.”

In a November 2012 letter sent from Bakırköy Women’s Prison, where she is being held, Berktay writes: “Growing up, I learned that it is a virtue to oppose injustice, inequality and unfairness. I was taught to read, research, to question, and never stop learning. I’ve never lost hope on our belief that our conflicts can be resolved through democratic means and not with violence. We have something to say about peace, and the power to make it a reality. We still do.”

Writer, historian and PEN Member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. This is the 27th year the award has honored an international literary figure who has been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Candidates are nominated by PEN International and any of its 144 constituent PEN centers around the world, and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprising some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award includes Carroll Bogert, Deputy Executive Director for External Relations at Human Rights Watch; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, International Vice President of PEN International and PEN American Center Trustee; and Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The Freedom to Write Award is an extension of PEN’s year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 900 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Forty-seven women and men have received the award since 1987; 33 of the 38 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.

PEN American Center is the largest center of PEN International, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled. It defends writers and journalists from all over the world who are imprisoned, threatened, persecuted, or attacked in the course of carrying out their profession. For more information on PEN’s work, please visit www.pen.org
 

For more information contact:
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, lsiems [at] pen.org
Sarah Hoffman, (212) 334-1660 ext. 111, sarah [at] pen.org

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