Istanbul, August 24, 2000 — Turkish journalist Nadire Mater, who is standing trial for “insulting” the powerful Turkish military in a book of interviews with former conscripts who fought in the civil conflict in southeastern Turkey, presented her defense today before a four-judge panel at the Beyoglu criminal court in Istanbul.
“The truth is plain to see. Banning the truth does not eradicate it,” Mater said before the judges in a small courtroom packed with local journalists and supporters, including CPJ board member Peter Arnett and Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna. “Preventing [the conscripts] from talking does not stop the anxiety of mothers, fathers, wives, and girlfriends, who try to hide tears as they see them off at bus terminals.”
Mater, a free-lance journalist with Inter Press Service (IPS), was charged last September on two counts of “insulting the Turkish military,” a crime under Article 159 of the Penal Code. The prosecution was initiated at the behest of the Turkish General Staff. If convicted, she faces between two and twelve years in prison. Her publisher Samih Sokmen, also charged in the case, faces a possible fine.
The charges against Mater stem from her authorship of Mehmed’s Book: Soldiers Who Have Fought in the Southeast Speak Out. First published in April 1999, the book consists of interviews with 42 retired Turkish soldiers who fought in the civil conflict in southeastern Turkey, where the government has been fighting a bloody war with Kurdish insurgents for much of the last 15 years.
Great tradition of war correspondence
“Her writings are in the great tradition of war correspondence in that she tells the personal stories of soldiers, stories that until now had been concealed from the Turkish people,” said Arnett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent best-known for his coverage of the Vietnam War and the 1990 Gulf War. “The charges against Nadire Mater should be dismissed and the ban should be lifted on this important book.”
Many of Mater’s subjects spoke about brutality, their daily fears and hardships, and their progressive disenchantment with the war. In the original indictment against Mater, prosecutors cited some 40 quotations from former conscripts as the basis for the charges.
Even before the charges were brought, an Istanbul court banned distribution of Mehmed’s Book on June 23, 1999, also under Article 159 of the Penal Code. Police subsequently confiscated unsold copies from the book’s publisher, Metis Publishers. Before the ban took effect, however, Mehmed’s Book went through four editions and sold around 9,000 copies.
“I still cannot comprehend, nor accept this ban. I cannot accept the charges,” Mater told the court today. “They [the war veterans] had remained silent for 15 years, and we the people in this country were not asking them anything,” she added. “When their narratives about their days in military service, about their lives before and after, about their expectations, loves, fear, pain, death, and resentments, in short about their whole life, were compiled in Mehmed’s Book, they hit a wall of repression and intolerance.”
Mater’s two attorneys and Sokmen, her publisher, also made defense presentations today, rebutting the charges and demanding that both defendants be acquitted. Observers had expected a verdict following today’s defense presentation; however, the head judge announced that final judgment would be postponed until September 29.
“Nadire Mater is being prosecuted because of her thoroughly professional coverage of an important news story,” said CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna. “At the heart of this case are the dozens of laws in Turkey that can be used to criminalize free expression. Unless concrete action is taken to eliminate these laws, Turkish journalists like Mater will continue to face legal harassment and jail time when they dare to speak the truth.”
Beyoglu Second Criminal Court, Istanbul
August 24, 2000
The Chief Justice of the Beyoglu Second Criminal Court:
In recent months, men of different ages suspended their civilian lives for 28 days as if they were going on holiday. These men, who are referred in the news media as “Mehmed Beys” (Mr. Mehmeds) completed their compulsory military service, which they had postponed for years, by paying 15,000 German marks. These men, whose numbers are said to reach seventy thousand, have once more revived the tradition of storytelling about boot camp, a tradition which had suddenly come to an end about fifteen years ago. Now it is time for these Mehmed Beys to narrate in the coffee houses, cafés or bars, anecdotes from their 28 days in the military….
The Mehmed Beys speak, and tell us how they enjoyed military service, while Mehmeds of the age of their own sons face death on mountaintops. These Mehmed Beys are known to all.
In Mehmedin Kitabi, those who did their military service in the Emergency Case area during the years 1984-98 spoke out for the first time. But they preferred to remain anonymous, because what they narrated was so painful and sad …
They had remained silent for fifteen years. We, people living in this country, did ask them anything. When their narratives about their days in military service, about their lives before and after, about their expectations, loves, fear, pain, death and resentments, in short, about their whole lives, were compiled in Mehmedin Kitabi, they struck a wall of repression and intolerance.
I still cannot comprehend, nor accept this ban. I cannot accept the charges. I expected the prosecutor to state his case, in anticipation of some clarification or justification of the charges against me. However, the prosecutor has chosen to look back to the Ottoman past and recall the censure of the West [over] allegations of [the] “Armenian genocide,” instead of explaining why the book violates Article 159 of the Penal Code.
What do the narratives in this book, or the people who actually lived these stories, have to do with the West? Instead of providing grounds or evidence for his accusations, the prosecutor has chosen to be content with a cliché that “criticism can only come from the West, and criticism is ‘treason,'” a cliché which has nothing to do with either law or justice. I find this to be proof of the groundlessness of the charges he has brought against me.
What connection can these Mehmeds have with the West, these ex-soldiers who talked in the book and whose stories were related without adding even a word? They are the young people who come from the country, from Trabzon, Malatya, or Aydin, and whom we consider to be heroes as long as they [remain] anonymous. They are young men who survived [their military service] as the result of pure chance. They are the young people who shared the same dangers as buddies who met their deaths right next to them. Some of them are “gazis” (veterans), that is, they have been wounded in combat. What is related in the book, in their own words, is their lives. According to the logic of the prosecutor, those heroes … [become] “Turk-hating Westerners” when they decide to take stock of their lives.
In fact, the prosecutor’s own attitude resembles that of the West much more closely than do the attitudes of the young people who draw a balance sheet of their lives in this book. During the conflict, which lasted for 15 years, the governments of the U.S., Germany, France, and Italy, always justified arms sales to Turkey by arguing: “There may have been excesses in war, but Turkey is defending herself against terrorism. We should not accuse, but rather support our NATO ally” …
I really wonder what sort of connection the prosecutor could have formed between the events narrated in this book and the allegations of “genocide against the Armenians.” If any verdict had to be reached on the basis of this book, we would have had to note that a Turkish citizen of “Armenian” descent was among the Mehmeds [who took] part in the war, and we would have had to conclude that the Armenians who live in Turkey are drafted for military service just like other citizens. In order to reach any other conclusion, we would have to go beyond the scope of the book. But here, the subject of this trial is this book, and nothing else.
The prosecutor, in an attempt to counter the expert opinion pointing to the objectivity and impartiality of the book, poses the question of why no one of the relatives of “Basbaglar massacre” victims was interviewed.
… I am led to believe that the prosecutor either never read the book …, or never noticed its particular focus. Furthermore, the prosecutor as a result of his own reasoning ends up suggesting that, in effect, the Armed Forces have resorted to massacres in their operations. If, in order not to be considered “one-sided”, and to be “objective,” I had included interviews with the relatives of “Basbaglar massacre” victims, this could only have been necessitated by my having mentioned, elsewhere, the occurrence of some other “massacre.”
Is this really the view that the prosecutor takes of the “conflict in the Southeast”?
On the other hand, who, indeed, perpetrated the massacre of Basbaglar? Seven years after the incident, the villagers are still demanding, in statements made to the press, that the government find the culprits. A number of those who were apprehended as suspects in this case were acquitted after a few years. They have appealed against the state for compensation for … the time they spent unjustly in jail, and [they have] won these court cases. Thus, in order to comply with the prosecution’s demands, we would first have to know who the perpetrators were.
Even if we were to … comply with the prosecution’s demand for “a more equitable” approach, we would have had to listen not to the relatives of the victims of this massacre, but to those who carried it out. For this book is about [the people] who were part of the conflict, [and] not about [the] “victims.”
The objectivity of this book can only be judged on the basis of whether it tries to touch upon all aspects of the process that it tries to examine, and not on the basis of topics that lie outside its scope. “A one-sided book” such as the prosecution wants to portray, would not have included an interview with a young man who survived the “massacre” on the Bingol highway, where 33 soldiers were killed, where he lost his hands and feet, and who, as a “gazi” cannot even marry his beloved.
But as a journalist, I make a note of the Basbaglar incident for future investigation.
What a book should be like, what it should include or exclude, concern the author. I do not accept for a moment that a book should be brought to trial, but if it should tried, it is self-evident that it should be judged solely on the basis of what was actually written and not on what was not [written.]
The other day, while we were dining at a restaurant, a young waiter claimed that [he and I] acquainted. It was futile for me to try to place him: we had not met, but according to this young man who had read Mehmedin Kitabi, we knew each other. I would have very much liked to be acquainted with the prosecution in this way.
I have presented my motivations and my method in bringing forth Mehmedin Kitabi, both in the statement I made at the first hearing of my trial, and in the foreword to Mehmedin Kitabi, both in the statement I made at the first trial hearing, and in the foreword to [the book.] All the reactions to the book since that day, in both the local and international press, and from quarters with widely differing viewpoints, have been unanimous [on one point: the importance of this work.
I am proud of having written Mehmedin Kitabi, which has elicited a negative reaction only from the offices of the General Staff and the public prosecutor.
The truth is plain to see: Banning the truth does not eradicate it. Preventing the Mehmeds from talking does not stop the anxiety of mothers, fathers, wives and girlfriends who, trying to hide tears, see them off at bus terminals. For the last five years, it has torn my heart … to see young people tossing their friends into the air with slogans of “he will go to the army, and come back alive” as they see them off. Isn’t this slogan, in itself, eloquent for all of us, including the prosecution?
I completely agree with the following legal opinion by the court appointed expert:
“Since the book has a special, subjective and concrete quality, since it conveys specific events which took place in certain regions, in a literary, in part documentary, and in part poetic fashion, and since it implicitly contains the wish that the difficult days our country has gone through in a certain period should come to an end, there is no material evidence of contempt or vilification of the armed forces of the state, as stated in Article 159 of the Turkish Penal Code.”
However, the prosecutor has approached the expert opinion in the same way that he has approached the book: he has taken [isolated] “excerpts” [from both the book and the opinion,] while ignoring the whole …
In summary, I agree with the expert opinion on the case, and I demand that the ban on Mehmedin Kitabi be lifted, so that Mehmeds may be saved, and I demand my acquittal.
August 24, 2000