I first met Ragip Zarakolu six years ago, in Istanbul. I was there as part of a team of international observers to watch his trial – for what? I can’t remember the specific charge now, but there are two things the Turkish authorities hate. One is the suggestion that the Kurdish people are an […]November 7, 2011
I first met Ragip Zarakolu six years ago, in Istanbul. I was there as part of a team of international observers to watch his trial – for what? I can’t remember the specific charge now, but there are two things the Turkish authorities hate. One is the suggestion that the Kurdish people are an ethnic minority with their own needs and rights; the other is to call the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 genocide of over a million Armenian people… well, genocide. (In fact the word was invented for this massacre.) Ragip is a publisher and regularly publishes books saying one thing or the other.
Throughout the six years of knowing him, I have been one of many members of PEN all over the world who write every month on behalf of Ragip. Throughout those six years there has been only one month when he wasn’t charged with anything. Now he has been arrested and is being detained in prison, along with his son, Deniz, the prominent academic and writer,Â Professor BÃ¼?ra Ersanl?, and 40 other activists.
The charge is new. Up until now Ragip has always been charged under Turkey’s Article 31, a catch-all law that seeks to control freedom of expression. But this time he’s being held under anti-terror laws – for daring to speak at a public meeting about Kurdish rights.Â
There are no stockpiles of explosives here, no teams of suicide bombers lining up to claim their celestial date with 72 virgins. All Ragip deals in is words, and ideas. What puzzles me is, why do the authorities care? Why is it so important to dictatorial governments that everyone parrots the party line? Why does it matter so much to them that a middle-aged publisher insists on standing up for human rights?Â
Ragip Zarakolu is not running Harper Collins; he is not the head of a Murdochian publishing empire or a Waterstonian chain of shops. He operates out of a small, shabby office in an Istanbul side street, where books are stored in boxes, on shelves, in teetering piles on the floor. They are not glossy coffee table books, nor mass market paperbacks – they are modest, unadorned texts, most of them too academic or polemical to reach the mainstream reader. I doubt whether Ragip prints more than a hundred copies of any one book.
Â But he clearly threatens a government which requires its citizens to be as zealously on-message as a member of Tony Blair’s cabinet.Â
In person Ragip has always made me think of a woodchopper in a fairytale. He is sturdy and powerful, with an intrinsic kindness that means you instantly trust him. But his charisma, humour and charm mask unusual determination. Most people would have given up by now, would have decided that life is too short and that it was time to be happy rather than right. Not Ragip. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be held, he doesn’t know when he’ll be tried, but today he cocked a snook at the authorities and released an open letter from prison:Â My arrest and the accusations of being a member of an illegal organisation are part of a campaign to intimidate all intellectuals and democrats living in Turkey and, more specifically, to isolate Kurds,Â he said.Â
A union colleague once asked me why Scottish PEN was campaigning for people like Ragip. ‘Turkey’s a modern country,’ he said. ‘People don’t go to prison there for stuff like that.’ And to a certain extent that was true. People like Ragip were constantly being charged, constantly being put through the mill of the judicial process, but they were no longer shackled or beaten or tortured as writers in more primitive countries were, as they themselves had been in the past. Ragip had been imprisoned; his first wife, Aysenur, had been tortured; their publishing house had been firebombed. Forty days after Aysenur’s death from cancer, when the initial period of mourning was traditionally over, the police had arrested Deniz Zarakolu for the emotional speech he made at his mother’s graveside.
So no, the authorities were no longer persecuting Ragip in such an extreme way, but his physical and mental health were constantly being eroded by the stress of uncertainty. It took him two hours across the Bosphorus Bridge from the Asian shore of Istanbul to get into the city centre, so the night before his court appearances, he and his wife (the American photographer Katherine Holle) would come in early and stay overnight in a hotel. It was the only way to be in a peaceful frame of mind when the legal proceedings began.Â
Inevitably there have been consequences for Ragip. He has had heart problems and has been in hospital several times over the last few years. At 63 he is no longer a young man. Yet the authorities have put him in a high security prison where conditions are harsh.Â IÂ have not been asked a single question regarding the organisation I am accused of being a member of; rather, 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,Â he wrote from prison.Â Tyrannical regimes understand guns and explosives, but RagipÂ deals only in words, and ideas, and that seems to frighten them more.
I’m afraid for him, and angry. I hope others will be too.Â
For more information and to write on Ragip’s behalf, go to: