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Hounded by the law

February 2, 2011

Pinar Selek, a writer living in Berlin, faces her third trial in Turkey. She is accused of planting a bomb and killing seven people. Observers, however, say the trial is politically motivated.

Pinar Selek
Pinar Selek is tired of more than a decade of legal proceedingsImage: AP

Pinar Selek's third trial is slated to begin on February 9, after over a decade of legal proceedings.

"The fact that the trial is still going on after 12 years and two acquittals contravenes human rights," Helene Fautre, vice president of the European-Turkish Group at the European parliament, told Deutsche Welle.

Selek is accused of belonging to the outlawed PKK, the Kurdish separatist organization, and laying a bomb in their name in Istanbul's busy spice bazaar in 1998, killing seven people and injuring over one hundred more. She denies the charges against her and claims she is being politically persecuted because of what she has written.

When Selek was arrested two days after the blast, she was working on a potentially controversial book about the Kurdish movement and why they had chosen a path of violence in their struggle for independence.

At the time, the PKK was waging war against Turkey and the authorities were determined to capture their leader Abdullah Öcalan. Selek had been speaking to people in the PKK as part of her research and she said that, upon her initial arrest, the police were much more interested in the book than the bomb.

Kurdish demonstrators are silhouetted by a Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) flag
Selek was writing about why the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has opted for violenceImage: AP

"They arrested me and took all my documents. They started asking me questions about the people I'd been speaking to. I never wrote their names down," she said. She knew her reputation as a researcher would be ruined if she did.

Police persecution

Selek said in an interview with Deutsche Welle that, during her interrogation, the police began to torture her for the information.

"They hung me on the wall in a Palestinian sling," she recalled. "They passed electroshocks through my brain, they dislocated my shoulder - lots of things. I just told myself, just resist for two minutes, two minutes, two more minutes. That's how it happened, two minutes at a time."

Selek said that with the trial coming up, the anxiety she felt during the torture comes back to her like an echo. A recent psychological assessment showed that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress.

It was only after a month of police interrogation that Selek discovered she was being accused of bombing the spice bazaar.

"I was watching TV and I saw a photo of me. They said that there had been an explosion, a fire in the spice bazaar. […] They said it was a terrorist attack and a young boy said he'd laid the bomb with Pinar Selek. I was watching it and it was total rubbish," she said.

Originally, the blast had been attributed to a gas leak, but a witness said he had laid the bomb with Selek in the name of the PKK. However, the witness later said that he had been tortured by the police and he actually did not know Pinar Selek.

In the meantime, Pinar Selek spent two and a half years in custody, even though several more experts said that the blast could not have been caused by a bomb, but pointed to faulty gas pipes instead. In 2008, the Istanbul Criminal Court finally ruled that Selek was not guilty.

Facing life behind bars

Istanbul's spice bazaar
Selek is accused of bombing Istanbul's busy spice bazaarImage: AP

But in 2009, Turkey's Supreme Court annulled the judgment, and in February 2010 ordered the Criminal Court to retry the case and impose life imprisonment on Selek, claiming she was a leading member of the outlawed PKK.

Fearing a jail sentence, Selek left Turkey and took up offers of financial support from charity organizations in Germany, including the German P.E.N. - an association for poets, essayists and novelists.

"When we knew what had happened to her, we decided of course to help her. Because she is in danger and she's a writer and we feel responsible for such people," said Christina Schuenke, who heads up P.E.N.'s Writers in Exile program.

The Writers in Exile scheme, which is funded by the German government, has been sponsoring Selek since last year, providing her with a rent-free flat and health insurance. They also plan to send 50 observers to her trial in Turkey, including writers, politicians, journalists and lawyers, in hopes that the attention will put pressure on the Turkish judiciary.

Selek has also taken her case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on the basis that she was tortured and hasn't received a fair trial. It is under review.

Grave danger

Dogan Akhanli
Akhanli is also facing criminal proceedings in TurkeyImage: CC/Raimond Spekking/Wikimedia Commons

Beginning on February 9, the 12th High Criminal Court in Istanbul has two choices: to uphold its own decision to acquit Selek or to agree with the Supreme Court's decision and sentence Selek to life imprisonment. But even if Selek's judicial proceedings end, Schuenke said her life would still be in danger.

"Even if she were acquitted again, which I really hope, she could not go back to Turkey immediately because she's really threatened by people in aggressive nationalist organizations who might kill her or do something very bad to her," she explained.

Pinar Selek is not alone. According to Cem Sey, who writes for the liberal newspaper Taraf, the Turkish judiciary often cracks down on artists and writers who tackle taboo subjects like Kurdish rights and the Armenian genocide.

A recent example is Dogan Akhanli, a historian living in Cologne who has written about the Armenian genocide. When he returned to Turkey last year for the first time since 1991, he was taken into custody and accused of an armed robbery that happened over 20 years ago.

"In my opinion, there's a general campaign by the judicial system against unruly intellectuals, to get some peace, to break the democratic movement and the opposition against the state," commented Sey.

He said the judicial system is making an example of Selek - to make a clear signal that writers should think twice about being critical. He added that it's not uncommon for evidence to be fabricated and for police to pin a murder or violent crime on intellectuals because Turkey knows that prosecuting a person for their thoughts and ideas would arouse fierce criticism amid its bid for European Union membership.

Silencing its critics

Pinar Selek
Despite the emotional hardship, Selek remains optimisticImage: Pinar Selek

According to Sey, these measures have a psychological effect on writers and journalists in Turkey. "I know a lot of journalists who for the past 10 years have been thinking, ok, tomorrow it could be me. The fact that one thinks about it for just a second, that's already dangerous," he said.

Sey attributes the situation to the fact that the judiciary is still in the hands of the old elite, who do not want the country to be democratized. Until now the moderate AKP government has pitted itself against the judiciary, but Sey said that with elections coming up in June, the government has become more nationalistic in its rhetoric and seems to want to silence any critics.

Sey hopes that this crackdown is a temporary measure in the run-up to elections, but worries that it may rather be a permanent trend away from the democratization process and away from EU membership. If the latter is the case, Europe may have to reconsider its policy toward Turkey.

"The fact that [EU membership] is taking a long time - that's not a problem," said Sey. "The feeling that's developing that it won't ever happen and that Turkey's just being held at bay - that's poisonous for Turkey," he said.

And it also seems to be poisonous for Turkey's outspoken intellectuals, like Pinar Selek.

Author: Natalia Dannenberg
Editor: Kate Bowen