ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Publisher Ragip Zarakolu reckons he may still end up in jail for "insulting Turkishness," even after Turkey changes a law notorious for limiting free speech.
After years of European Union criticism, Turkey is amending article 301 under which Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and Armenian- urkish editor Hrant Dink were tried for insulting Turkish identity. Dink was later shot dead by a militant nationalist.
The proposed changes, however, are so minor that writers and publishers in Turkey fear they will continue to face frequent trials. Meanwhile, other laws which put just as much pressure on freedom of expression remain untouched.
EU aspirant Turkey has a long tradition of limiting free speech, especially on issues which continue to be seen in some quarters as a threat to the modern republic. The rights of a large Kurdish minority, the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, and Islamism are all taboo; the military remains largely off-limits, despite moves to curb its formal powers.
Under the draft changes it will be a crime to insult the Turkish nation, rather than Turkishness, and the president's permission will be required to open a case. The maximum sentence will be cut to two years from three.
But nationalist lawyers, a powerful force in the Turkish legal system the AK Party government seeks to reform, will still be able to put writers in court as they did Pamuk and Dink.
"Some lawyers and judges feel they have a mission to defend the state and the state ideology rather than the rights of the citizens," Zarakolu, a veteran journalist and publisher, told Reuters in a cafe near his home on the Asian shore of Istanbul. His case is on hold until the amendment is passed.
Zarakolu is on trial for publishing a translation of a book about the Armenian massacres, which Ankara denies amounted to genocide. He thinks he is likely to get convicted, and as he already has a suspended sentence for an earlier piece of journalism, he says he could end up in jail.
Zarakolu has long angered the establishment with books about Turkey's taboos, and over the years has suffered jail and a bomb attack on his office. The book he is on trial for now, a translation of George Jerjian's "The Truth Will Set Us Free," is a call for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians and tells the story of how a Turk saved the writer's Armenian grandmother.
Dink, who was shot dead by a teenage nationalist outside his Istanbul office in 2007, received a suspended sentence for "insulting Turkishness" in his call for reconciliation.
Officials of the generally reformist ruling AK Party defend the changes to article 301 saying other European countries have similar restrictions. They acknowledge that changing the mentality of some judges and lawyers is needed, though they repeatedly stress that many writers have been acquitted.
"A lot of European countries have similar laws but, except for Poland, they never use them. But here they use them all the time and they will continue to use them," said Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary at activist group International PEN.
"I hope nobody will be cheated by this because it's no major difference," he said in comments echoed by Human Rights Watch.
The existing law has been criticized for its vague wording, which yields broad powers to judges to define what might constitute an insult to Turkishness. The new law will not necessarily address this fundamental problem.
The reform, debated in a parliamentary commission on Friday, is meant to be part of a wider attempt to bring the EU candidate's young democracy in line with European standards.
The courts enjoy broad rights to intervene in what in western Europe would be considered purely political matters. The governing AK Party itself faces a court move to close it down on accusations of Islamist ambitions and to ban Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul from politics.
Brussels views this with concern and has also given the new freedom of expression law a luke-warm response. On a recent trip to Turkey, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it was a step in the right direction.
Even if 301 were scrapped entirely, writers would still be banned from expressing certain views. Insulting modern Turkey's revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, remains a crime.
Novelist and columnist Perihan Magden has lost count of the cases against her, but has never been in court for 301. She was given two official bodyguards after Dink was killed last year.
She was tried for "turning people against military service" in an article defending conscientious objectors, and though she was acquitted in 2006, will be back in court on the same charges in July.
"I have 10 cases going against me, at least 10, I don't know how many. It goes on and on," Magden told Reuters. "(My articles) are not a call to arms or some terrorist act or something. It's just some democratic rights that I'm asking for and I'm being tried non-stop."
The justice minister said recently that in the last five years almost 1,500 cases based on 301 had been opened.
In the establishment, support for the article is strong and both main opposition parties fiercely oppose changing it. Only the deputies of a pro-Kurdish party -- whose members frequently find themselves in court for what they say -- are calling for outright abolition.
Zarakolu, who chuckles through his bushy grey beard as he recounts his run-ins with the law, hopes that what the reform may achieve is to delay his case with bureaucratic hurdles.
"It's either conviction or the dusty shelves," he says.
Edited by Ralph Boulton