Friday, 2 March 2012


The Nobel Peace Prize is generally accepted as one of the highest honours a human being can win, a recognition of exceptional courage or integrity, affirmation that you have lived your life honourably and decently. But sometimes it's even more than that. It's currency.
Publisher Ragip Zarakolu is currently in a high security prison in Turkey, along with terrorists, drug dealers and other scary people. After his arrest at the end of October last year, he was deprived of the lifeblood of every literary person¾books. But now that he has been nominated for the Nobel, the authorities are realising they were perhaps a little hasty. He has been given permission to visit the library and to use a computer once a week.

In prison, values tend to be the reverse of those in society and the tougher the criminal you are, the more kudos you get, but the Nobel nomination has boosted Ragip's standing and he is now looked upon as a leading figure in the prison.

'Everybody knew about the nomination, and that changed the conditions remarkably,' says Eugene Schoulgin of PEN International, who campaigns tirelessly on his behalf. 'Even the guards wanted to assure the visitors that they took good care of him.'

It's hard to under-estimate how important such affirmation from the world outside is to a political prisoner like Ragip. Letters of support and friendship from all over the world have helped keep his spirits up, though he often has to wait to receive them as the prison censors mail and there isn't always an officer on hand to translate them.

F-Type prisons like Koceali, where Ragip was moved from Istanbul, have been criticised by both Amnesty International and the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey for their harsh regime. Prisoners are often kept in isolation and many are subjected to 'harsh and arbitrary disciplinary punishments.'

Ragip appears to be allowed to associate with other inmates¾ he sent out photos of himself with two of them¾and has access to a small radio. The prisoners are able to watch television for short periods in the evening and the prison pipes its own music channel into the cells. Sometimes it's even Ragip's much loved classical music. 'He said that when he listened to Bach's Brandenburg concerto he cried for the first time since his imprisonment. (If you start to cry listening to the Brandenburg you are actually in a worse shape than you think, if you ask me!),' jokes Eugene Schoulgin.

Most of us would cry long before we heard Bach. It seems surreal to us that in a purportedly civilised society someone can be locked up arbitrarily for protesting about injustice, as Ragip did about the Kurds. Few writers or publishers in Britain would be able to stand it, and given the amount of self-censorship that goes on for economic reasons in UK newspapers, you can bet that few would continue to speak out. (If you don't agree, just check out the comparative number of articles about foreign affairs and about celebrities.)       

The irony is that here we actually hire professional rabble-rousers to express strong opinions. Can you imagine how Jeremy Clarkson would cope if his obnoxious comments about striking public sector workers had led to detention in prison? How many times would Jeremy Paxman have challenged Michael Howard in his famous interview on Newsnight if he knew it would lead to being accused of insulting the British state?

But then neither of the two Jeremys is ever likely to be in line for the Nobel.

To support a petition calling for the release of Ragip Zarakolu please follow this link:

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