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.
The Nobel Peace Prize is generally accepted as one of the highest honours a human being can win, a recognition of exceptional courage or integrity, affirmation that you have lived your life honourably and decently. But sometimes it's even more than that. It's currency.
Publisher Ragip Zarakolu is currently in a high security prison in Turkey, along with terrorists, drug dealers and other scary people. After his arrest at the end of October last year, he was deprived of the lifeblood of every literary person - books. But now that he has been nominated for the Nobel, the authorities are realising they were perhaps a little hasty. He has been given permission to visit the library and to use a computer once a week.
In prison, values tend to be the reverse of those in society and the tougher the criminal you are, the more kudos you get, but the Nobel nomination has boosted Ragip's standing and he is now looked upon as a leading figure in the prison.
'Everybody knew about the nomination, and that changed the conditions remarkably,' says Eugene Schoulgin of PEN International, who campaigns tirelessly on his behalf. 'Even the guards wanted to assure the visitors that they took good care of him.'
It's hard to under-estimate how important such affirmation from the world outside is to a political prisoner like Ragip. Letters of support and friendship from all over the world have helped keep his spirits up, though he often has to wait to receive them as the prison censors mail and there isn't always an officer on hand to translate them.
F-Type prisons like Koceali, where Ragip was moved from Istanbul, have been criticised by both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey for their harsh regime. Prisoners are often kept in isolation and many are subjected to 'harsh and arbitrary disciplinary punishments.'
Ragip appears to be allowed to associate with other inmates - he sent out photos of himself with two of them - and has access to a small radio. The prisoners are able to watch television for short periods in the evening and the prison pipes its own music channel into the cells. Sometimes it's even Ragip's much loved classical music. 'He said that when he listened to Bach's Brandenburg concerto he cried for the first time since his imprisonment. (If you start to cry listening to the Brandenburg you are actually in a worse shape than you think, if you ask me!),' jokes Eugene Schoulgin.
Most of us would cry long before we heard Bach. It seems surreal to us that in a purportedly civilised society someone can be locked up arbitrarily for protesting about injustice, as Ragip did about the Kurds. Few writers or publishers in Britain would be able to stand it, and given the amount of self-censorship that goes on for economic reasons in UK newspapers, you can bet that few would continue to speak out. (If you don't agree, just check out the comparative number of articles about foreign affairs and about celebrities.)
The irony is that here we actually hire professional rabble-rousers to express strong opinions. Can you imagine how Jeremy Clarkson would cope if his obnoxious comments about striking public sector workers had led to detention in prison? How many times would Jeremy Paxman have challenged Michael Howard in his famous interview on Newsnight if he knew it would lead to being accused of insulting the British state?
But then neither of the two Jeremys is ever likely to be in line for the Nobel.
To support a petition calling for the release of Ragip Zarakolu please follow this link: http://chn.ge/vu4AxI
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.
Picture by Katherine Holle
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,
Professor Büşra Ersanlı, 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.
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?
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.But he clearly threatens a government which requires its citizens to be as zealously on-message as a member of Tony Blair's cabinet.
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: 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, he said.
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 second 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.
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. I 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, he wrote from prison. Tyrannical regimes understand guns and explosives, but Ragip 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.
For more information and to write on Ragip's behalf, go to:www.internationalpen.org.uk and www.internationalpublishers.org