A Turkish court has acquitted author Elif Shafak in a trial over a book about the massacres of Armenians during World War I, saving the government from fresh embarrassment in its ties to the European Union.
Shafak did not attend the trial as she gave birth just days before
Despite Thursday's acquittal, Brussels warned Turkey that it should purge its penal code of restrictions on freedom of speech to convince the bloc of its commitment to human rights and democracy norms.
With only weeks to go before the EU issues its verdict on Turkey's membership progress, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government was open to proposals to reform infamous Article 301 of the penal code that landed Shafak and a string of other intellectuals in court.
The judges cleared Shafak, 35, on lack of evidence shortly after the trial began in a cramped courtroom in central Istanbul under tight security against violence by nationalist protestors.
Shafak risked up to three years in jail for "denigrating Turkish national identity" in her best-selling novel "The Bastard of Istanbul," or "Baba ve Pic" (The Father and the Bastard) in Turkish.
Lagendijk said Turkey must amend Article 301
"I am happy for Shafak, but I believe Article 301 must be amended," Joost Lagendijk, a senior member of the European Parliament, said after the hearing which he followed as an observer. "If not, there will be similar cases. Only the amendment of the article will satisfy the European Union."
His comments were echoed by the EU executive.
"The commission welcomes this recent judgment, this is obviously good news," the European Commission's enlargement spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said in Brussels. She added, however, that "a significant threat to freedom of expression" remains in Turkish law and urged amendments in Article 301 and other "vague" penal code provisions.
Charges focused o n fictio n al character
Shafak, who gave birth to her first child last week, was not present in the courtroom.
Her trial added a bizarre twist to Article 301 because the charges stemmed not from a public statement by the defendant as in other cases, but from lines uttered by Shafak's fictional Armenian characters in "The Bastard of Istanbul." One of the book's characters speaks of "Turkish butchers" and of a "genocide" while others talk about being "slaughtered like sheep" during the 1915-1917 massacres.
Erdogan said his government was ready to discuss proposals to amend Article 301 as he welcomed Shafak's acquittal.
"The ruling party and the opposition can sit down together again to discuss this issue as laws are not eternal," he said in Ankara.
No one has yet been imprisoned under the article, but the appeals court in July confirmed the suspended six-month sentence of a Turkish-Armenian journalist, setting a precedent.
On Nov. 8, the European Commission will issue a key report on Turkey's progress towards membership, which is expected to be critical of the pace of reform.
"Culture of ly n chi n g"
Shafak also hailed her acquittal, but expressed concern that "a culture of lynching" was emerging in Turkey at a time when respect for dissenting views is crucial to boost the country's democratic credentials.
Author Orhan Pamuk has also been brought to court under Article 301
"I am concerned about an idea that has recently developed in Turkey, the idea that 'those who do not think like us are cooperating with the enemy,'" she told NTV television.
She was referring to a group of nationalist lawyers who instigated the charges against her, the latest in its relentless campaign to pursue before the courts intellectuals who dispute the official line on the Armenian massacres.
Members of the group, which many say is aiming to undermine Turkey's EU bid, engaged in short-lived scuffles with supporters of Shafak outside the courtroom. Police immediately stepped in and detained two people, NTV said.
Shafak's novel takes place in Istanbul and San Francisco and recounts the stories of four generations of Turkish women and an American-Armenian family, the descendants of survivors of the massacres.
Armenians assert that up to 1.5 million of their people were slaughtered in what was genocide between 1915 and 1917, as the Ottoman Empire, modern Turkey's predecessor, was falling apart.
Categorically rejecting the genocide label, Turkey argues that 300,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.
Much to Ankara's ire, the massacres have been recognized as genocide by many countries. Last year, Germany's parliament condemned the systematic murder of 1.5 million Armenians by Turks in 1915-1916, though it avoided using the term "genocide."
A taboo for decades, the Armenian killings have only recently become the subject of a tentative public debate, often sending nationalists into a frenzy.