Zarakolu was taken into custody on October 28, 2011, during a large-scale manhunt in Istanbul against Kurdish and human rights activists.
His son, Deniz Zarakolu, editor of the Belge Publishing House, was arrested on October 4.
Ragip Zarakolu’s Belge Publishing House has published numerous books as well on the oppression of the national minorities in Turkey as the Armenian Genocide.
Earlier on same day, within the same man-hunt, Professor Büsra Ersanli, a constitutional law expert and a member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) intra-party constitutional commission, was detained along with dozens of others.
Counterterrorism units launched simultaneous operations against suspected KCK members early on Friday and detained 41 people. Police raided various BDP offices in Istanbul as well, including the BDP Istanbul Politics Academy and several BDP branches.
Ersanli, who has been taking part in the BDP’s preparations for a draft constitution, is also among the detainees. Sources said the number of detainees may increase as the operation is still under way.
BDP Co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas strongly criticized the new wave of detentions on Friday. “We will not be able to talk about a healthy constitution-making process if we go ahead like this. We will have no party member who can join efforts for [drafting] a new constitution,” Demirtas said.
Who is Ragip Zarakolu?
Ragip Zarakolu was born in 1948 on Büyükada close to Istanbul. At that time his father, Remzi Zarakolu, was the district governor on that island. Ragip Zarakolu grew up with members of the Greek and Armenian minority in Turkey. In 1968 he began writing for "Ant" and "Yeni Ufuklar" magazines.
In 1971 a military junta assumed power in Turkey. Ragip Zarakolu was tried on charges of secret relations to Amnesty International. He spent five months in prison, before the charges were dropped. In 1972 Ragip Zarakolu was sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment for his article in the journal Ant (Pledge) on Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnam War. He stayed in Selimiye Prison (Istanbul) and was released in 1974 following a general amnesty. On his release Zarakolu refused to abandon his campaign for freedom of thought, striving for an "attitude of respect for different thoughts and cultures to become widespread in Turkey".
The Belge Publishing House, established in Istanbul in 1977 by Zarakolu and his wife Aysenur, has been a focus for Turkish censorship laws ever since. Charges brought against the couple resulted in imprisonment for both Aysenur and Ragip Zarakolu, the wholesale confiscation and destruction of books and the imposition of heavy fines.
In 1979 Ragip Zarakolu was one of the founders of the daily newspaper Demokrat and took responsibility for the news desk on foreign affairs. The paper was banned with the military coup of 12 September 1980 and Ragip Zarakolu was shortly imprisoned in 1982 in connection with this position in Demokrat. He was banned from leaving the country between 1971 and 1991. In 1986 he became one of 98 founders of the Human Rights Association in Turkey (HRA or in Turkish IHD). For some time Ragip Zarakolu chaired the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN in Turkey. Currently (beginning of 2007) he chairs the Committee for Freedom of Publication in the Union of Publishers.
Until the military coup of 12 September 1980 Belge Publishing House mostly published academic and theoretical books. Afterwards Belge started to publish a series of books written by political prisoners. The series of 35 books consisted of poems, shorts stories, novels. The list of publications (see a list of selected publications below) include more than 10 books (translations) of Greek literature, 10 books on the Armenian Question and five books related to the Jews in Turkey. There are also a number of books dealing with the Kurds in Turkey.
He also has published several books on the Armenian Genocide, such as George Jerjian’s The Truth Will Set Us Free: Armenians and Turks Reconciled and Professor Dora Sakayan’s An Armenian Doctor in Turkey: Garabed Hatcherian: My Smyrna Ordeal of 1922 — which brought new criminal charges in 2005. In November 2007 Zarakolu published David Gaunt’s book "Massacres, resistance, protectors" about the Assyrian Genocide in Turkish ("Katliamlar, Direnis, Koruyucular").
In 1995 the Belge Publishing House offices were firebombed by a far right group, forcing it to be housed in a cellar. Since his wife’s death in 2002, Zarakolu continued to face further prosecutions.
Recent court cases against Ragip Zarakolu and Belge Publishing House (until her death Aysenur Zarakolu stood trial instead of him) include:
On 21 March Istanbul State Security Court (SSC) No. 1 heard the case of Aysenur Zarakolu on charges of having disseminated separatist propaganda by publishing a book by Hüseyin Turhalli, former chairman of the Democracy Party (DEP) for Diyarbakir province, entitled Songs of Freedom. During the hearing her husband Ragip Zarakolu stated that this would have been the 34th court case against his wife, if she had been alive. On 4 June Istanbul SSC dropped the charges against her after establishing that Hüseyin Turhalli was living in France and Aysenur Zarakolu had died in January.
On 3 December Istanbul SSC acquitted Ragip Zarakolu from charges under Article 312 TPC. The trial had been opened for his translation of the book The Regime of 12 September on Trial, written by Dr. Gazi Çaglar from Hannover University.
On 10 September, Istanbul Heavy Penal Court No. 14 (former Istanbul SSC No. 4) concluded the case launched against publisher Ragip Zarakolu, owner of the newspaper Ülkede Özgür Gündem (Free Agenda in the Country), Ali Çelik Kasimogullari and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Mehmet Çolak in connection with an article titled Sana Ne (What’s that to you) that was published on 8 March 2003. The court sentenced Kasimogullari to a fine of TL 3.3 billion and Mehmet Çolak to 6 months’ imprisonment and a fine of TL 1.65 billion under Article 7/2 of the LFT (making propaganda for an illegal organization). Çolak’s sentence was commuted to a total fine of TL 3.73 billion. Zarakolu’s file was separated due to legal change made regarding Article 312 TPC. He was to be tried at a Penal Court.
Beyoglu Penal Court No. 2 heard the case on 2 March 2005 and adjourned the hearing to 12 May. Further hearings were held on 21 September and 11 October 2005. Result unknown.
Ragip Zarakolu was indicted for the Turkish translation of Professor Dora Sakayan’s book entitled An Armenian Doctor in Turkey. G. Hatcherian: My Smyrna Ordeal in 1922, Montreal 1997. According to the indictment, Zarakolu was to be sentenced following Article 301 new TPC (Article 159 of the former TPC). The first hearing was set for 21 September at Istanbul Penal Court No 2.
On 20 September Istanbul Penal Court No 2 continued to hear the case against Ragip Zarakolu, owner of Belge Publishing House, in connection with the book about the Armenian genocide entitled The Truth Will Set Us Free written by the British writer George Jerjian. The hearing was adjourned to 22 November for investigation of the expert report. The charges related to Article 301 new TPC (of June 2005). The latest two cases were combined and further hearings were held on 21 November and 15 February, 19 April, 21 June and 14 December 2006. The next hearing was scheduled for 15 March 2007.
In June 2008, Zarakolu was found guilty of "insulting the institutions of the Turkish Republic" under Article 301 of the Turkish penal code for translating and publishing Jerjian’s book. The judge sentenced him to five months in prison. However, the judge, citing Zarakolu’s "good behavior", stated that the author may avoid imprisonment by paying a fine.
On 10 March 2011, Ragip Zarakolu, publisher and free expression activist, was sentenced to a fine, and author Mehmet Güler to a 15-month suspended prison term. The two were convicted of spreading propaganda seen to support the banned Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), following the publication of Mehmet Güler’s book The KCK File/The Global State and Kurds Without a State. The Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International is troubled by the sentences against Zarakolu and Güler which contravene international standards safeguarding the right to freedom of expression.
RSF’s reaction to the KCK arrests
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had published on October 26, 2011, the followig commuique about KCK arrests:
Pressure is mounting on journalists in eastern Turkey as the government intensifies its military offensive against the armed separatists of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an offensive that is spilling over into neighbouring countries.
As well as a spate of trials and cases of prolonged detention, journalists are now the target of government directives. Journalists who cover Kurdish issues critically continue to be accused of supporting the separatists by officials who cite the war on terror as their overriding imperative. And concern is growing that the government is trying to control coverage of its offensive.
Jailed for an interview?
The Turkish judicial system continues to treat the publication of interviews with PKK members as terrorist propaganda, even if they are accompanied by commentary that stops far short of praising the PKK.
Nese Düzel, a journalist with the liberal daily Taraf, and his editor, Adnan Demir, for example, are being prosecuted for two April 2010 reports containing interviews with former PKK leaders Zübeyir Aydar and Remzi Kartal. A prosecutor asked an Istanbul court on 14 October to sentence them to seven and a half years in prison. The next hearing in their trial is to be held on 9 December.
Prosecutors at the same court are preparing to try the journalist Ertugrul Mavioglu over a report in Radikal in October 2010 that contained an interview with Murat Karayilan, one of the leaders of the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), regarded as PKK’s urban wing.
A seven-and-a-half-year sentence has also been requested for Recep Okuyucu, Taraf’s correspondent in the southeastern province of Batman and editor of the local newspaper Batman Medya. The prosecutor’s office in the nearby city of Diyarbakir claims that he connected 53,848 times to the Firat News Agency website (www.firatnews.org), which the authorities have blocked because they accuse it of relaying PKK propaganda. Okuyucu’s defence is that, as a journalist, he has to check a wide range of websites every day.
Widespread use of pre-trial detention
Tayyip Temel, a columnist and former managing editor of the Kurdish-language daily Azadiya Welat, was detained and taken into custody on 4 October in Diyarbakir. He was questioned for 15 hours by special prosecutors, who also questioned 35 other people suspected of belonging to the KCK.
Charges were finally presented at the end of September against two journalists with the pro-Kurdish news agency Diha (Dicle Haber Ajansi) – Kadri Kaya, its Diyarbakir bureau chief, and Erdogan Alkan, its Batman correspondent – who have been held since 15 April and will appear in court for the first time on 2 November in Diyarbakir.
They are facing a possible 20-year jail sentence on charges of collaborating with the PKK and publishing propaganda on its behalf in their coverage of Kurdish demonstrations and Turkish army operations. Alkan is also accused in connection with his coverage of the trial of a “village guard” (member of a militia that supports the army) on a charge of sexually abusing a minor in Batman. According to prosecutors, his coverage aimed to “denigrate the security forces in society’s eyes.”
Diha’s correspondent in Mersin, Aydin Yildiz, was arrested on 1 October as he was leaving the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem. He was transferred to Gaziantep for questioning and then placed in detention, as was Özgür Gündem editor Kazim Seker, who was arrested on 4 October in Istanbul.
The newspaper’s publisher, Eren Keskin, who is also a lawyer, was meanwhile given a warning by the Istanbul bar association for referring to “Kurdistan” in a lecture she gave in 2004. The warning was issued following a May 2010 decision by Turkey’s highest court of appeal upholding the 10-month suspended prison sentence and fine of 3,000 lira (1,200 euros) that she had received from a court in the southeastern city of Urfa.
In an interview for Radikal on 11 October, the minister in charge of negotiations with the European Union, Egemen Bagis, said that the government was concerned about the judicial system’s excessive use of pre-trial detention and that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had asked officials to look at how it was used in Europe and to draft recommendations.
“Limiting the use of pre-trial detention has long been one of our leading recommendations to the Turkish authorities,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We hail this initiative by the government, which could mark a turning point. The promises must now be followed by action, action that affects all of Turkey’s regions.”
Coverage of demonstrations criminalized
After 10 months in pre-trial detention, Emine Altinkaya, a Diha reporter in Ankara, was released at the end of September pending trial. She was arrested on 27 November 2010 while covering a demonstration in the capital.
Two Diha correspondents in Istanbul, Safiye Alagas and Olcay Kizilpinar, are also due to be tried soon on charges of collaborating with the PKK. They were arrested during a march on 30 July that was organized by Sirri Süreyya Önder, the candidate of a legal pro-Kurdish party, the BDP. Cameras, mobile phones, SIM cards, USB flash drives and a laptop were confiscated from them at the time of their arrest and are still being held as prosecution evidence.
Government directives to the media
Several Turkish journalists’ organizations have voiced strong criticism of Prime Minister Erdogan’s meeting with national media owners and executives on 21 October, at which Erdogan urged journalists to show restraint in their coverage of the conflict, to take account of its consequences and to avoid relaying PKK propaganda.
Even more disturbing is the communiqué that five leading Turkish news agencies – AA, AHT, ANKA, CIHAN and IHA – issued jointly on 24 October announcing that, “Common principles have been adopted concerning the coverage of terrorist incidents.”
They said they had undertaken to “take account of public order (…) keep a distance from interpretations that encourage fear, chaos hostility, panic or intimidation (…) not include propaganda for illegal organizations” and, above all, to “comply with the publication bans issued by the competent authorities.” The communiqué also said: “Account will be taken of social utility and solidarity when selecting reports and photos for transmission to subscribers.”
“We had hoped that the era of government directives telling the media how to cover the most sensitive subjects was long over in Turkey,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The very vaguely formulated undertaking by the leading news agencies to toe the official line now poses a serious threat to freedom of information.
“Will these agencies, whose job is to provide content to all the media, willingly participate in a news blackout? Minimizing the scale of human losses or choosing not to report certain operations will just increase mistrust of the media. Complete and objective coverage of developments in eastern Turkey is an essential precondition for reaching a peaceful solution to the Kurdish issue.”
Reporters Without Borders also has concerns about the security agreement which France and Turkey signed on 7 October and which, according to French interior minister Claude Guéant, “goes much further than the agreements that France usually signs in the security domain.”
“We hope that the French authorities will be much more discriminating that their Turkish counterparts as regards combating terrorism,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We urge them not to be sucked in by Ankara’s indiscriminate and repressive approach, which causes many collateral victims, including journalists.”