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I was in court again last week, summoned in connection with the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) Article 301 charge of ‘insulting Turkishness’ by displaying a couple of collage pictures I had made of the Turkish Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan last year, depicting him as a pet dog of America. I was surprised at the sudden summons (brought to my door by a plain-clothes policeman). Having being held in police custody for 10 days last September, and then suddenly released, I’d presumed that the case was over. . Apparently not; and when I went with my lawyer to the courthouse, there was my name on the list as the accused; the plaintiff: Tayyip Erdogan.
The foyer on the second floor was crowded with folk, some in handcuffs with guards, waiting to have their cases heard by the judges in their little courtrooms. (There is no jury system in Turkey. Decisions are made by a board of judges or a sole judge depending on the nature of the case.)
My case was to be heard at 11-30, but because of a power cut, it was adjourned until afternoon. When my lawyer and I returned from lunch, there was a street dog lying streched out asleep on the pavement in front of the entrance to the courthouse. Ironic.
The hearing lasted about 45 minutes. In my defense I said that my pictures had not meant to be personally insulting to Tayyip Erdogan, but to show his position as a close friend and ally of George W Bush, and the fact that 90 nuclear bombs are stored on Turkish soil at the American airbase in Incilik.
I said I’d made and displayed collage pictures of American presidents and British prime ministers for many years without restraint, in the west we have the right to caricaturize our so-called ‘leaders’.
“Well, you don’t in this country,” said the judge.
“So I’ve learned,” said I.
I told him I didn’t usually plan my collages but acted on inspiration at the time of making, often as a reaction to news of what is happening in the world, particularly Iraq. As an artist, I refuse to censor my work. Inspiration should not be suppressed.
The judge held up black and white photocopies of the offending pictures and asked me to describe what I was trying to say in them, (one with Bush tying a ‘Best in Show’ rosette on the Erdogan faced dog, the other of him eating a pile of dollars, held on a leash made of the Americal flag, his tail a raised missile,. I replied that it was up to the viewer to make his own interpretation; a visual artist shouldn’t need to explain in words.
The case has been adjourned until October, during which time the prosecution will seek the opinions of at least 3 university professors as to whether my collages could possibly be classified as ‘art’.
The Turkish government is not the only body to be prickly about criticism. The Turkish army is similarly sensitive, so much so that early in April a military prosecutor ordered a police raid on the premises of the popular liberal weekly magazine ‘Nokta’ in connection with a story the magazine had published about an internal military memo blacklisting some media organisations for being anti-army and an article which alleged there had been a plot by former commanders to stage coups in 2004 against Erdogan’s Islamic-leaning AK government.
The Nokta offices were occupied by the police for three days. Journalists were forced to discuss their sources, documents and private correspondence were confiscated, and hard drives of computers copied. By rights the magazine could take the case to the European Court of Human Rights for such violation of privacy, which would most probably result in the Turkish authorities being ordered to pay hefty compensation, but due to the intimidation Nokta decided to close down instead a great blow to the freedom of the press.
The armed forces considers itself the ultimate guardian of the country’s secular constitution, established by Ataturk in 1923, and it takes its role seriously. There may very well have been a planned coup against the government in 2004, but the possibility of an imminent one in 2007 is a question on everyone’s lips in Turkey at the moment.
Apart from the violent scenes in Istanbul on May Day, in which almost 1000 were arrested, police firing shots in the air and using tear gas and water cannon as they fought pitched battles with demonstrators intent on holding a banned rally in Taksim Square, during April there were two other even bigger demonstrations in Istanbul and the capital, Ankara – more peaceful, but just as determined, the first to protest against the possibility of Prime Minister Erdogan becoming President of the country, and then when he bowed to pressure and decided not to stand himself, but elect Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to the post instead, again the secularists came out in their hundreds of thousands, making the city streets a crimson river of waving Turkish flags, loudly voicing their protest.
Gul is just as Islamic as Erdogan in attitude, and although the the post of President is largely ceremonial, it has always been a stronghold for secularists, and carries the power to veto legislation .The ruling AK party supports religious schools, favours the prohibition of alcohol, sought to outlaw adultery, and has tried to lift the ban on Islamic head scarves in public offices. Secularists fear that with an Islamist President the country might become more like its neighbour Iran.
The secularist protestors would have been delighted yesterday when Turkey’s highest court voted to block Abdullah Gul’s candidacy for president, objecting to his Islamic credentials, but dismayed by Prime Minister Erdogan’s quick response of calling for early elections, which his party will probably win due to the popular support of most working-class voters. He also made the controversial proposal of taking the presidential selection process out of the hands of Parliament and placing it to a public vote
It’s a long time until my next trial in October, and things are changing fast. It’s difficult to predict what the situation will be like in the country by then. Let’s pray that it might be, in the chant echoed by thousand of secular protestors in the streets here last week – ‘Neither Sharia, nor coup, but a fully democratic Turkey’.
And let it be a true democracy where people have the right to freedom of speech and expression not one in which the charge of ‘insulting the Prime Minister’ has become ‘insulting the President’ instead!
MICHAEL DICKINSON lives in Istanbul . He can be contacted through his Saatchi Gallery