By SELCAN HACAOGLU
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey restored the citizenship of its most famous poet Monday in a symbolic step meant to show it was addressing criticism of its human rights record in hopes of joining the European Union.
Turkey stripped Nazim Hikmet of his nationality in 1951 at the height of the Cold War because of his communist views, branded him a traitor and imprisoned him for more than a decade. He died in exile in Moscow in 1963, but his work lived on — and the government's decision to restore his rights is meant to show Turkey is ready to embrace a limited amount of criticism.
"It is a step toward accepting differences in opinions, languages and ethnicity, which is necessary to become a member in the EU," said Dogu Ergil, a political analyst at Ankara University.
Considered to be one of Turkey's first modern poets, Hikmet's deep love for his country and rich use of free verse earned him the esteem of artists, intellectuals and champions of free expression.
Hikmet traveled to Moscow to study economics and sociology in the 1920s, and came under the thrall of the Bolshevik revolution. Authorities took a dim view of his work for a leftist magazine after he returned, but he evaded them and went back to Moscow before he could be imprisoned.
He came back to Turkey a second time after a general amnesty in 1928 — only to be imprisoned a decade later on charges of inciting officers to rise up against their commanders.
He wrote some of his best poetry in prison, including his epic masterpiece, "Human Landscapes."
Poetry written in prison was smuggled abroad, bringing him international fame and the support of artists like Pablo Picasso and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, Turkey deemed his poems to be communist propaganda.
At the time, the country was anxious about the broadening influence of a Soviet bloc that reached Turkey's eastern and western borders, together with Soviet territorial claims.
Freed in 1950, he left Turkey after two attempts on his life. He became a Polish citizen through family ties and never returned.
His poetry remained banned in Turkey until 1965. Even after the ban was lifted, many would hide their copies, fearing to be branded communists. Police confiscated copies of Hikmet's books and burned or stamped each copy "banned" in red ink.
Even as late as 2005, Turkish authorities detained and questioned a 17-year-old who read a poem by Hikmet at a school poetry reading. He was released without any charges, but the detention revealed the difficulty in changing old attitudes despite new laws granting freedom of expression passed as part of its EU membership drive. Authorities still aggressively act against those suspected of activities against the state.
Hikmet's works, which have been translated into more than 50 languages, have recently been at the center of a controversy as Turkish leftists and intellectuals have pressed the government to restore his citizenship rights and repatriate his remains.
In 2000, half a million Turks petitioned the government calling for his rehabilitation. Orhan Pamuk, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, featured Hikmet's work two years ago when given editorial privileges for the Sunday edition of the newspaper Radikal. Pamuk's cover story criticized the Turkish press and the state for the suppression of free expression in Turkey.
Pamuk is one of dozens of artists, journalists and writers who had been charged with insulting Turkey, its officials or "Turkishness" under an infamous article of the Turkish penal code. The charges against Pamuk were dropped on a technicality in January 2006.
Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said it was time for the government to change its mind.
"We think we did the right thing," Cicek said.
Cicek said the poet's family would decide whether to ship his remains from Russia back to his homeland.