Jailed Publisher Decries ‘Mass Lynching’ in Turkish Crackdown
Prison has not silenced Ragip Zarakolu, a Turkish publisher and journalist who has been challenging his country’s taboos for four decades.
Earlier this month, after he and other activists were arrested under Turkey’s anti-terror laws, Zarakolu published an open letter, undaunted.
“I believe that it is time to show a collective opposition to this wave of arrests, which has become a campaign of mass lynching,” Zarakolu wrote from prison. The letter was posted Nov. 3 on the website of the PEN American Center, which monitors the mistreatment of writers, editors and publishers around the world. He demanded an end to “all moves by the authorities that go against the law and principles of due legal process.”
Zarakolu was charged with being affiliated with the Kurdish Communities Union, the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which the Turkish government lists as a terrorist organization. About 12,000 Turkish citizens have been arrested under terror statutes since 2001.
Free speech and assembly are under assault worldwide, Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN, said in an interview. Curtailing liberties has increased since Sept. 11 in the name of antiterrorism, he said.
“That’s something we’ve obviously struggled with in this country as well, which hasn’t helped in holding the line on this internationally,” Siems said.
Sinan Zarakolu, a 36-year-old architect, called his father’s arrest “crazy.”
“Ragip is a person who never declares himself a member of a group,” he said in a telephone interview from his Istanbul apartment. “He tries to cover various points of views. His point is freedom of speech.”
In his open letter, Zarakolu said he wasn’t questioned about the organization he was accused of joining.
“I have only been pressed on works that I have written or edited, speeches I have given, and free and public meetings I have attended,” he wrote.
Since a military junta assumed power in Turkey in 1971, he’s been imprisoned with regularity. Zarakolu spent five months in prison and was tried on charges of having secret relations with Amnesty International, according to a biography provided by PEN. The charges were dropped.
In 1972, he was imprisoned for two years for an article he wrote about Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam until 1969. In 1977, Zarakolu and his wife, Aysenur, founded the Belge Publishing House, which led to more prison and fines. Zarakolu co-founded a newspaper, “Demokrat,” and was imprisoned in 1982 in connection with his work there.
After a 1980 military coup, Belge began publishing books by political prisoners and about the genocide of Armenians in Turkey in the early 20th century. In 1995, its offices were firebombed and in the 2000s he and his wife were charged with such infractions as disseminating propaganda and insulting Turkish institutions. (Aysenur died in 2002, at 56, of cancer.)
In March 2011, Zarakolu was fined for spreading propaganda to support the PKK. His son Deniz, an editor at his father’s publishing house, was arrested on Oct. 7. The father was taken into custody on Oct. 28 and sent to a high-security prison in northwest Turkey, according to a report in the English-language Hurriyet Daily News.
His lawyer, Ozcan Kilic, was quoted in the paper saying he was concerned about his client’s health in prison.
Siems described Zarakolu as modest, with a buoyant sense of humor. He said he isn’t surprised by Zarakolu’s defiant open letter, which calls the arrest part of a campaign to intimidate intellectuals and democrats. Siems said Aysenur Zarakolu kept a packed suitcase at home to prepare for the arrests that were sparked by the couple’s publishing and activism.
“This is what he and his late wife dedicated themselves to doing,” Siems said. “He’s that committed to Turkey’s future.”