ISTANBUL, Turkey – Turkey's foremost novelist goes on trial Friday in Istanbul in a free-speech case that has divided the nation, embarrassed its liberals and cast a pall over its dream of joining the European Union.
For Europeans who oppose Turkey's membership in their prosperous club of democracies, the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk reinforces the view that the nation of 70 million Muslims, while a useful buffer between Europe and the Middle East, is no part of contemporary European civilization.
Pamuk, the critically acclaimed author of "My Name is Red," "Snow" and "Istanbul," faces up to three years in prison for saying to a Swiss newspaper in February that no one in Turkey is willing to deal with painful episodes in the country's past treatment of its Armenian minority or its continuing problems with its 12 million Kurdish citizens.
His remark that "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it," is being prosecuted as a breach of a law against insulting the Turkish Republic or "Turkishness."
On Thursday, the European Union made the stakes clear. "It is not Orhan Pamuk who will stand trial tomorrow, but Turkey," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, adding that prosecuting "a nonviolent opinion casts a shadow over the accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU."
In October, after the charges were filed against 53-year-old Pamuk, Rehn visited him at his home in Istanbul, bringing copies of his books to sign. That was five days after Turkey achieved its long-sought goal of opening negotiations for full EU membership. Now a delegation from the 25-nation EU's elected parliament is flying in to attend the trial.
The Bush administration regards Turkey as an ally and strongly backs its admission to the EU.
Pamuk's works deal with a conflicted Turkish identity born of straddling the cultural lines that meet here — Western and Eastern, conservative and modern, Islamic and secular. In 1998 he rejected a government honorific on the grounds that the Turkish state banned books, mistreated Kurds, encouraged "crazy nationalism" and violated human rights.
In an essay in this week's New Yorker magazine, he wrote that the case against him was thin and he did not expect to be jailed.
In the 1,400-word article, he wrote: "What am I to make of a country that insists that the Turks, unlike their Western neighbors, are a compassionate people, incapable of genocide, while nationalist political groups are pelting me with death threats? What is the logic behind a state that complains that its enemies spread false reports about the Ottoman legacy all over the globe while it prosecutes and imprisons one writer after another, thus propagating the image of the Terrible Turk worldwide?"
He linked his case to others involving free speech in societies where old nationalist impulses are clashing with the forces of globalization, and said "lies about the war in Iraq and the reports of secret CIA prisons have so damaged the West's credibility in Turkey and in other nations that it is more and more difficult for people like me to make the case for true Western democracy in my part of the world."
Though Turkey has implemented broad and widely praised democratic reforms to meet EU membership criteria, its laws still permit prosecution for statements deemed to put Turkey or its officials in a bad light.
The killing of minority Armenians 90 years ago, not long before the Ottoman Empire was replaced by today's secular republic, is a particularly sore point. Armenians say as many as 1.5 million died in a campaign of genocide. Turkey insists it was war, not genocide, and that the numbers are inflated.
Turkey's leaders have long feared that opening such taboo topics to debate carries high political costs in lost prestige, concessions to ethnic groups, admission of past wrongs, and perhaps even ceding territory and the breaking apart of the Turkish state.
The dilemma has grown more acute now that even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a staunch supporter of Turkey's admission to the EU, is saying it can only happen if Turkey embraces European standards of free expression.