The international literary community is demanding the immediate release of Turkish publisher and free speech activist Ragip Zarakolu, who has been arrested and imprisoned in Turkey under the country’s anti-terrorism laws.
Zarakolu, director of Belge Publishing House, a member of Turkish PEN and chair of Turkey’s Freedom to Publish Committee, is one of more than 40 activists who were detained in Istanbul on Friday, according to PEN and the International Publishers Association. The arrests are part of a crackdown against Kurdish political parties which has seen more than 1,800 supporters of the banned Koma Civakên Kurdistan party jailed since 2009. PEN said that if an appeal against the charges is unsuccessful, Zarakolu will be held through a trial process which is likely to last over a year.
Zarakolu founded Belge in 1977 and has tested publishing restrictions in Turkey ever since by releasing controversial books from Armenian, Greek and Kurdish authors in Turkish editions, including books documenting the Armenian genocide. His office was firebombed by a right-wing extremist group in 1995, said PEN, he was banned from leaving Turkey between 1971 and 1991 and he has been the subject of repeated charges, most recently being fined for releasing Mehmet Güler’s The KCK File/The Global State and Kurds Without a State in March 2011.
Bjørn Smith-Simonsen, chair of the International Publishers Association’s freedom to publish committee, said that Zarakolu “does not belong to prison, he deserves a Nobel prize”. Calling him “the pride of publishing” and “the limelight of freedom to publish in Turkey”, Smith-Simonsen demanded he be released immediately. “The trial is likely to begin in a year’s time only. Ragip Zarakolu’s health is not good. We fear that he will not stand his detention conditions in the terrible F-type (high security) prisons,” he said. The IPA is intending to meet the Permanent Representative of Turkey to the United Nations Office in Geneva as soon as possible to urge the Turkish government to release the publisher immediately.
Smith-Simonsen was joined in his appeal by PEN America’s Freedom to Write director Larry Siems, who called Zarakolu “an internationally recognised defender of the right to write and publish freely”. “It is essential not to confuse the efforts of those who, like Ragip Zarakolu, have worked to bring down barriers of censorship in Turkey with those who press political agendas through violence,” said Siems. “We emphatically protest his arrest.”
Poet and essayist Peter Balakian, whose memoir Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past was published in Turkey by Belge, called the arrest “a blow to Turkey’s efforts to create a free and open society”. “Ragip Zarakolu has been honoured by almost every leading publishing organisation in the world for his courage, his patience, his intellectual rigour and his pursuit of genuine democracy,” said Balakian. “For over four decades Ragip and his late wife and son have been at the cutting edge of social change in Turkey, publishing books on subjects that the government has deemed taboo— especially subjects dealing with minority issues in Turkey and the histories of minority cultures.”
Zarakolu founded Belge with his wife Ayse Nur, who received the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in 1997, dying in 2002. Goldsmith, a writer and historian, said that “if Zarakolu is not given his freedom, then all of us give up our freedom to write. If Zarakolu is not free, then none of us are free.”
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