On 23 November, the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, admitted that more than 13,000 Kurds had been killed by the Turkish military in Dersim in the 1930s. Apologising for the massacre, he called it ‘the most tragic event in our recent history’. Liberals and leftists welcomed the apology, which appears to promise a more open discussion of the Turkish state’s past atrocities.
Ragıp Zarakolu, the 63-year-old head of the Belge Publishing House, was behind bars when he heard the news.
He wrote to his lawyer, asking him to buy three red roses and place them on the grave of his wife and co-publisher, Ayşe Nur Zarakolu, who died in 2002. In 1990, she was put on trial for publishing a book about the Dersim massacre, the first to appear in Turkish. Since 1977, Belge has published more than 400 books by writers including Isaac Babel, Perry Anderson and Rosa Luxemburg, and on subjects including the Armenian genocide. In 1995, their offices were fire-bombed. At Ayşe Nur Zarakolu’s funeral, the couple’s son Deniz Zarakolu made a speech pledging his commitment to his parents’ long-held progressive ideas. He was charged for inciting hatred and narrowly escaped a prison sentence.
Ragıp Zarakolu, currently at a high-security prison in the north-western province of Kocaeli, is accused of being involved in the Kurdistan Communities Union, a political network known to be an extension of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But most of the evidence against him seems to concern his publishing activities. He is said to have been in possession of documents supportive of the PKK movement, and to have made a speech to the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party that supported secessionist ideas.
If Zarakolu’s real crime is daring to question the Turkish state’s past crimes against humanity, then he is certainly guilty. Two decades ago it was unlawful to talk about the Dersim massacre. Erdoğan’s predecessors made the discussion of Turkey’s history a crime. If that approach has changed it is in part thanks to publishers like Ragıp and Ayşe Nur Zarakolu. Without their efforts, Erdoğan – who was himself imprisoned ten years ago for a poem he read at a public rally – probably wouldn’t even be aware of the atrocities for which he has apologised.