Turkish Judge Halts Novelist's Free-Speech Trial

A judge halted the trial of Turkey's best-known novelist Friday, saying the Justice Ministry must first approve the explosive legal case that raises questions about the country's commitment to free speech.

Judge Metin Aydin's insistence that the ministry first approve the case against Orhan Pamuk for insulting national honor is forcing Turkey's politicians to grapple with whether they are willing to press forward with a high-profile trial despite opposition from the European Union.

The head of the European Parliament delegation monitoring the trial, which opened Friday and was closed after a half-hour, warned that the hearings were "very bad for Turkey's image in Europe."

Turkey began accession talks with the EU on Oct. 3, and Dutch conservative Camiel Eurlings cautioned that the impact of the Pamuk trial on those talks "could be huge, and it could be negative."

In a brief statement to the press, Pamuk said "it is not good for Turkey, for our democracy, for such freedom of expression cases to be prolonged."

He faces up to three years in prison for telling a Swiss newspaper in February that Turkey is unwilling to deal with painful episodes in its treatment of the country's Armenian minority or its continuing problems with its 12 million Kurdish citizens.

The deep emotions that the case has stirred were obvious at the trial Friday.

As Pamuk left the courthouse, a group of several dozen nationalists shouted: "Traitor!"; "Turkey is ashamed of you!"; "Shame on you!"; and pelted his car with eggs. Pamuk was escorted by riot police, who used shields to push the crowd back.

Inside the courthouse, Denis MacShane, Britain's former minister for Europe and a member of the British Parliament, told The Associated Press that "the accusation of insulting the state is something you associate with dictatorial regimes, not with a modern European state. This has come as a real blow to Turkey's supporters in the European Union."

"You can't put one of the world's best living novelists on trial and say this is just growing pains," MacShane added.

Pamuk, who has often been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature, told the Swiss newspaper that "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

Prosecutors have charged him with insulting the Turkish Republic and "Turkishness," a charge that requires Justice Ministry approval.

The court applied Dec. 2 for Justice Ministry approval. Rather than drop the case, Aydin said he would wait for the government's answer.

Justice Minister Cemil Cicek indicated that he was in no rush to give approval. The court is scheduled to meet again Feb. 7.

"This is how it should be done, you asked a question, of course you will wait for the answer," Cicek told reporters.

Pamuk, in an essay in The New Yorker magazine to be published in its Dec. 19 issue, wrote that "what stained a country's 'honor' was not the discussion of the black spots in its history but the impossibility of any discussion at all."

Turkey has carried out a sweeping series of reforms to expand freedom of expression as part of its EU membership drive, but nationalist prosecutors and judges often still interpret laws in a restrictive manner, especially on sensitive issues such as the massacre of Armenians at the time of World War I or the fight against Kurdish guerrillas in the country's southeast.