Student faces jail for questioning Atatürk

A headscarf-wearing student faces a possible jail sentence of four and a half years for saying she does not like the state’s founding hero, Atatürk. The state prosecutor is to open an investigation regarding comments made on a Kanal 1 television show, Teke Tek, by Nuray Bezirgan.

Barred from university in 2004 after refusing to take off her headscarf, Bezirgan was asked by journalist Fatih Altayli if she liked Atatürk. According to a transcript on Biamag, Bezirgan replied: ‘Does the right not to like Atatürk exist? If so, I do not like him. If people are persecuting me in the name of the ideology of Atatürk, then you cannot expect me to like Atatürk.”

Under Turkey’s law 5816, anyone who publicly ‘insults or curses the memory of Ataturk” will be imprisoned for one to three years. If the insult is carried out by two or more individuals or through the media, the sentence can be increased by 50%.

Any action against Bezirgan will further stoke tensions arising from the reimposition of the ban on students wearing headscarves in universities and a court case against the ruling Justice and Development Party for lifting the ban.

In the programme Altayli pressed Bezirgan to praise or show gratitude for the man who won back Turkey’s independence from the invading European armies and established the ‘liberal Republic” in 1925.

Bezirgan replied: ‘The kind of party that defends my ideas cannot be established in Turkey. In fact, this is forbidden. When a party defends my ideas it is shut down … in the name of Atatürk.”

She had earlier praised Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini.

Meanwhile, a Turkish publisher has been sentenced to five months in prison for publishing a book about the alleged Armenian genocide in 1915, according to Turkey’s Zaman newspaper.

Ragip Zarakolu, director of Belge publishing house, was found guilty of insulting the institutions of the Turkish Republic under article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. Zarakolu, 2008 winner of the International Publisher’s Association (PEN) Freedom to Publish Prize, said: ‘I was partly expecting this result. But it is a struggle for the truth and it will go on.”

It is the first prosecution since the government watered down article 301 in response to European Union pressure. But the case shows that the freedom of academics and authors to publish their views remains restricted.


The prosecution and sentencing of Zarakolu follows that of Atilla Yayla, a professor of political philosophy at Gazi University in Ankara. Yayla received a 15-month suspended sentence in January for breaching law 5816 by describing the early years of the Republic as backward.

Yayla argued in a panel debate that the basic foundations of civilisation should include freedom of expression, PEN reported. After the verdict, Yayla told the BBC: ‘I want to emphasise again and again that Turkey’s most pressing problem is freedom of expression. What is important is that Turkey should evolve into a country where people are not punished because of their thoughts.”

Atatürk is revered throughout Turkey. Statues and portraits commemorating his achievements are ubiquitous and showing respect at his mausoleum at Anitkabir, in Ankara, is a must for visiting statesmen. —

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