Free speech in Turkey; torture in America

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The acquittal of the Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, on charges of “insulting Turkishness” is good news for free speech. But the very fact that Ms Shafak could face such a charge is damaging to Turkey’s international image and reveals the tensions within the country.

Ms Shafak is a novelist - and one of the characters in her book, The Bastard of Istanbul, made a reference to the Armenian genocide. That was enough to land her in court. The case is an echo of another unsuccessful prosecution last year of Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s most famous novelist.

The sad irony is that distinguished novelists like Pamuk and Shafak should be huge assets in Turkey’s bid to win over European opinion. Shafak, who is feisty, good-looking and unveiled, is a standing refutation of the idea of the oppressed Muslim woman. But by allowing the prosecution of their best novelists, the Turkish authorities turn what should be a plus for their country’s image into a massive minus. Of course, many in the Turkish government know how stupid such prosecutions are. They also know that they have to repeal or change Article 301 of the penal code, which allows such cases to go forward. But the fact that they have been unable or unwilling to move, shows how frightened liberals in the government are of provoking a nationalist backlash.

Meanwhile, America’s torture row continues. As today’s FT makes clear, even the CIA is getting anxious that America’s use of dubious interrogation practices could eventually lead to agents being prosecuted. I must admit that I was very slow to take on board the gravity of the torture story. I assumed when the initial charges were made that of course, the United States couldn’t be torturing people. – it must be a left-wing slur. Perhaps that was naïve. But talking to a former British foreign secretary yesterday (that’s not name dropping, I haven’t named him), I discovered that this grandee had had a similar reaction. When he looked into the question, however, he was horrified to discover that it does indeed seem as if the Americans have been using torture. Of course, what exactly has happened is shrouded in a degree of mystery and deniability. But this seems like a reasonable account of what is known.

Senator John McCain, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, clearly thinks bad stuff has been going on. He has come out strongly against torture. But it is not clear that his party actually agrees with him. Some even think McCain could lose the nomination over this issue.

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