January 28, 2008 / 2:06 PM / 10 years ago

Turkish academic convicted of insulting Ataturk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - A Turkish court imposed a suspended 15 month jail sentence on Monday on a professor for insulting modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in a case likely to draw European Union criticism.

Students carrying portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk leave Ataturk's mausoleum in Ankara, November 10, 2007. A Turkish court imposed a suspended 15 month jail sentence on Monday on a professor for insulting Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, in a case likely to draw European Union criticism. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The court in the western port city of Izmir sentenced Professor Atilla Yayla over comments he made at a 2006 conference in which he questioned whether Ata’s beliefs contributed to Turkey’s progress.

Yayla, a liberal who teaches political science at Ankara’s Gazi University, had also asked why pictures and statues of Ataturk are still so ubiquitous in modern Turkey.

Insulting Ataturk’s memory is a crime in Turkey. Yayla’s university suspended him from teaching after the comments first emerged in the media.

Private broadcaster CNN Turk said that under the suspended sentence an expert would monitor the professor’s behaviour for two years.

The case is the latest in a series of prosecutions which have drawn attention to limits on freedom of expression in Turkey and has attracted criticism from human rights groups and from the EU, which Ankara hopes to join.

Ataturk is revered by most Turks for driving foreign armies out of their country after World War One and establishing a secular republic that banished religion from politics, gave women equal rights and took western Europe as its model.

Ataturk died in 1938 but his life and teachings remain a core subject of the school curriculum. Millions flock to his mausoleum in Ankara every year and also observe two minutes of silence on November 10 to mark the anniversary of his death.

Turkish nationalists often invoke Ataturk when they criticise the EU-backed reforms of Turkey’s government. They also accuse Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of wanting to destroy Ataturk’s secular legacy, a charge Erdogan strongly denies.

Liberal Turks also mostly admire Ataturk’s achievements, but say he should not be beyond criticism in a modern democracy.

Reporting by Daren Butler and Gareth Jones

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