"Sanar Yurdatapan stands for the principles of tolerance and free expression, which are fundamental to respect for all human rights," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "We admire his vision, creativity and courage, and we are honored to have the opportunity to work with him to advance his important cause."
Yurdatapan has built an effective campaign that bridges Turkey's cultural, ideological, and party political divides. Inspired by French writer Voltaire's principle that one should defend the right to speak -- even for people whose ideas one finds offensive -- he has persuaded people from opposing camps to defend the free expression of their rivals. In his work, he has overcome numerous obstacles, including repeatedly being convicted and imprisoned on politically-motivated charges.
Yurdatapan uses humor and ingenuity in tackling Turkey's restrictive expression laws. When anyone is convicted for the expression of their non-violent opinions, he finds prominent journalists, actors and artists to republish the offending statement, along with a prominent disclaimer that they are defending the person's right to express their views, not the views themselves. These "republications" trigger prosecutions that are highly embarrassing for the State Security Courts, when cameras have for example shown celebrities struggling into a defendant's bench so crowded that they are forced to sit on each other's knees.
Sanar Yurdatapan was stripped of his citizenship by the military junta that seized power in Turkey in 1980. He lived in exile from 1980 until 1992. The military handed back power to a civilian government in 1984, but they have kept public discussion of certain issues off limits, particularly criticism of state institutions (especially the military) and the role of ethnicity or religion in politics. Sanar Yurdatapan has bravely defended the rights of Turkish citizens to address these taboo subjects.
In addition, Yurdatapan has been active in efforts to address the widespread human rights violations that occurred during the 15-year conflict between government forces and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in the mainly Kurdish southeast. In 1996, he organized a delegation to investigate the killing of 11 Kurdish villagers at Guclukonak, a particularly inaccessible region. The delegation found strong evidence that the military was responsible for the massacre. Yurdatapan has also worked on prison conditions and the right to conscientious objection to military service.
The 2002 Human Rights Watch Annual Dinners in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will honor two other human rights defenders, in addition to Yurdatapan, a Chadian lawyer seeking justice for former dictator Hissene Habre's crimes against humanity in Chad, and a leading HIV/AIDs activist from India. Human Rights Watch works with these brave individuals as part of its defense of human rights in more than 70 countries around the world.
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