Mark Thomas spots a human rights turkey

In Turkey, even assisting the state security forces comes at a price. Consider the case of Private C

Well, what a start to 2006! Neurosurgeons working on Ariel Sharon have erected a large concrete wall around the eastern part of his brain. The wall encompasses the Israeli prime minister's frontal and temporal lobes as well as sections of Bethlehem and the West Bank. Surgeons have stressed that this is not an excuse for a land-grab by Israel but merely for security reasons . . . Ruth Kelly has been released from her obligations as Principal Boy in Aladdin just in time for the resumption of parliament . . . Charles Kennedy turns out to have been pissed, which might explain how he managed to be opposed to the invasion of Iraq and then support it and then oppose it again . . . It also turns out that "Menzies" does not refer to a woman's period, but is pronounced "Ming" by the upper classes . . . The BBC has received a record number of complaints about biased reporting. It is claimed that any balanced and fair assessment of Charles Kennedy's political demise would have included the phrase "And finally, on a lighter note" . . . Bird flu has reached a country with a poultry-based name and yet headline writers can't quite make it work for them . . . All of this, and Michael Barrymore temptingly incarcerated. Though strangely he hasn't ventured near the Big Brother pool yet. A fantastic start to the year indeed.

But drag your memories back, dear readers, back through the gullet of Christmas and the guilt of inappropriate behaviour at the office party, and you may recall the small matter of a world-famous author facing trial in Turkey. No? Let me remind you.

On 16 December, the renowned writer Orhan Pamuk appeared in a Turkish court under Article 301/1 of the penal code, charged with insulting the Turkish national identity. His offence was to say: "Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands, and almost nobody in Turkey but me dares to talk about it." Unlike some European countries where Holocaust denial is a crime, in Turkey it is holocaust admission that has become the state's shibboleth.

When Turkey applied to join the European Union, certain changes were required. It had to start respecting the rights of minorities, improve human rights and remove the power of the military from government. So denying Pamuk his right to freedom of speech is exactly the type of human-rights abuse that Turkey does not want attention drawn to.

With thousands of column inches (sorry, centimetres just doesn't sound right) written on the issue across Europe, the case has become an international cause celebre. Readers might recall the images of Pamuk arriving for trial, as right-wingers tried to attack him, pelting him with eggs as he left the court. What you might not remember is that the trial judge referred the case to the justice minister, Cemil Cicek, who must decide if the prosecution will continue. Caught between the EU/human-rights activists and the Turkish military/nationalists, Cicek appeared on television and took the coward's way out, asking Pamuk to atone for his offence, arguing: "He should have said: 'I apologise to my nation.'"

The implication is that if Pamuk apologises, there will be no need to prosecute him, nationalists will be placated and the problem will go away. But this case is only the start of a broader crackdown. At the end of last year, 60 Istanbul bar owners shut their premises for one night, protesting that police were harassing customers under the guise of conducting inspections. After hanging banners that read: "Our store is closed for one day to protest the arbitrary and unlawful practices by the police", several of them were arrested.

Nine of the bar owners now face trial under Article 301/1, the same law used to charge Pamuk, accused of "insulting the security forces". If such a law existed in the UK, Jeremy Clarkson's meanderings about the iniquities of speed cameras could have landed him in prison . . . OK, that's not a great example of how bad this law is, but you get the point. The bar owners' court case is due on 20 March.

Even assisting the security forces comes at a price in Turkey. On 11 July 2005, a Turkish soldier, Coskun Kirandi, was kidnapped by the PKK, the Kurdish guerrilla organisation. After considerable public pressure on the authorities to do something, a peace committee comprising human-rights activists, lawyers, local politicians and journalists managed to secure his release on 4 August.

Speaking on TV, Kirandi said his captors had treated him well. But, for this heinous crime of getting a soldier released, the Turkish authorities have charged the peace committee with making propaganda for a terrorist organisation. The court case is due on 3 March. Members face four to five years in prison.

Turkey's problem with human rights cannot be solved by the outcome of a single court case. With Austria, which holds the EU presidency, opposing Turkey's application to join the Union, the task has become even harder. Yet the Turkish government's repressive approach seems likely to remain.

So if, for a while to come, you discuss a genocide, protest against the police, or free a soldier, you will be breaking the law. Though I do wonder if, somewhere in Turkey, a writer is flabbergasted that in England you can't ring a bell near Downing Street without getting arrested.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2006 issue of the New Statesman, We were wrong about Sharon