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My Blog

The Human Cost

      THE HUMAN COST
 
I'm fortunate. I've actually met the person I campaign for, Ragip Zarakolu, a Turkish publisher who has been hounded for over 30 years by his country's legal authorities. This is unusual in the world of Scottish PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC). We work on behalf of writers who have been persecuted, threatened or imprisoned for speaking their minds, but we rarely meet them.
 
I met Ragip in 2005, when I went to Istanbul in a group of international observers of one of his trials. There have been many over the years. In fact in all the time I've known him, there has only been one short period of just over a month when he wasn't on trial for something. That followed a surreal verdict when the writer who had written a novel about the Kurdish minority was convicted of breaching the notorious Article 31 of the Turkish consitution; Ragip, the publisher, was found to be innocent. The decision made one wonder what the Turkish version of Mr Bumble's 'the law is a ass,' would be.
 
That first trip to Istanbul taught me a lot about the cost of free speech. Ragip had been in prison in the 1970s; his late wife Ayse Nur had been there a decade later, when she was tortured for giving a job to a dissident student. The police interrogated her to find out where he was living but she refused to reveal his hiding place—which was in the home of her mother.
 
Over the years, the couple continued to publish books upholding the rights of the Kurds or discussing the genocide of 1915, when over a million ethnic Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman government. The Zarakolus didn't make money from it (Turkey doesn't have the big glossy publishing industry that we have in this country) but they believed in what they were doing. Their publishing house was torched and they were under constant surveillance, but still they carried on. After Ayse died of cancer in 2002, Ragip continued the work himself.
 
It was the night before the trial in 2005 that I really saw at first hand how much pressure the judicial harassment by his country was placing on him. Now married to his second wife, Katrin Holle, he lived across the Bosphorus Bridge on the Asian side of the city. In the mornings, the bridge was jam-packed with traffic and it could take as long as two hours to cross to the European side. Rather than put himself through that, he and his wife stayed in a hotel in the city centre. He had high blood pressure and was afraid that the stress of getting to court on time would send it soaring.
 
Ever since, I have been anxious about the human cost of freedom of expression. Being able to speak our minds is something we take for granted in this country, despite the encroachments into our rights that are constantly being proposed. For the most part, though, we can pontificate down the pub to our heart's content, without worrying that a government agent is listening in at the next table, as happens in Burma. WIPC hosted an event in late 2012 for a group of Burmese poets whose anthology, Bones Will Crow, had just been published. Several of the poets who read that night had left their native country, unable to deal with the intrusion into their private lives. When you close down ordinary conversation you're annexing people's minds, their souls.
 
That's why it's so important to campaign for freedom of expression. From that basic freedom to think and speak, all others flow. Some of the writers we support think it's important enough to place their own lives at risk for it. Lydia Cacho, for example, exposed a paedophile ring that went right to the heart of the Mexican Establishment in her 2003 book, Los Demonios del Edén. Cacho has been raped for her work on behalf of battered women, kidnapped and driven 900 miles across country, threatened with death. In a country which has seen 28 journalists murdered since 2002, and many more disappeared, she is no longer safe and now moves around Europe, unable to live for any length of time in her home country.
 
It's not just the writers themselves who suffer. Those around them often end up being persecuted. When Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned on Christmas Day, 2009, after signing a document calling for human rights to be observed in China, his wife Liu Xia, was put under house arrest and deprived of access to a computer. She has recently been released briefly from her isolation to attend the trial of her brother, Liu Hui, charged with a £318000 fraud which is believed to be politically motivated. As she was driven from the court, Liu Xia shouted, 'I'm not free,' from the car window to reporters and diplomats. 'When they tell you I'm free, tell them I'm not.'
 
Her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was unable to attend the ceremony and will be in jail till 2020. Will her house arrest be as long? The powerful poems Liu Xiaobo has written are testament to the profound love between them and the punishment that Liu Xia too is undergoing.
 
There's always a human cost and it is that which drives the work of Scottish PEN and WIPC. We care about the people we campaign for. Last year Ragip Zarakolu was arrested, after years of unfinished court cases, and taken to a high security prison, where he was incarcerated with terrorists and drug dealers. At first he wasn't even allowed books, though after he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize he became a minor celebrity inside and was able to communicate more with the outside world. He sent me a beautiful letter asking for Scottish poems as he wished to translate them into Turkish. Naturally one of the books I sent him was a collection by our own egalitarian poet, Robert Burns.
 
The Turkish government and all those around the world who persecute their own citizens would do well to take note of his words:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

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