updated 11/1/2006 10:41:33 AM ET 2006-11-01T15:41:33

A court Wednesday acquitted a 92-year-old retired archaeologist who was put on trial for writing in a book that Islamic-style head scarves date back more than 5,000 years — several millennia before the birth of Islam — and were worn by priestesses who initiated young men into sex.

Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, an expert on the ancient Sumerian civilization of Mesopotamia, which arose around the third millennium B.C., was the latest person to go on trial in Turkey for expressing opinions, despite intense European Union pressure on the country to expand freedom of expression.

She is one of dozens of writers, journalists and academics who have been prosecuted, including this year’s Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, and novelist Elif Shafak. Charges against Pamuk were dropped over a technicality earlier this year, and Shafak was acquitted.

Unlike Pamuk and Shafak, who were tried under Turkey’s notorious Article 301, which sets out punishment for insulting the Turkish Republic, its officials or “Turkishness,” Cig was accused of insulting people based on their religion. She could have been imprisoned for 1½ years had she been convicted.

'A woman of science'
In a trial that lasted less than an hour in Istanbul, Cig rejected the charges saying: “I am a woman of science. ... I never insulted anyone,” private NTV television reported. Twenty-five lawyers were present at the trial to defend her.

A prosecutor spoke in favor of dropping charges, saying Cig’s actions had not in any way “endangered public safety,” the state-owned Anatolia news agency reported.

The court then ruled in her favor on grounds that her actions did not constitute a crime. Also acquitted was her publisher, Ismet Ogutucu of the Kaynak publishing house.

The trial took place a week before a crucial European Union report on Turkey’s progress toward membership, which is expected to chide the country for slipping in its reform program and not acting to change laws that have been used to curb freedoms, in violation of EU human rights standards.

The trial against Cig was initiated by an Islamic-oriented lawyer who was offended by her recently published political book, “My Reactions as a Citizen,” in which she says that the earliest examples of head scarves date back to Sumerian times, when veils were worn by priestesses who helped young men learn about sex.

Pro-secular groups came to the trial in a show of support for the archaeologist, who was born in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. She retired in 1972 and has written 13 books.

The groups cheered and applauded her as she left the courthouse. Cig thanked her supporters and urged them to “continue her work” in promoting secularism.

In the public eye
An avowed secularist, Cig gained public attention when she wrote to Emine Erdogan, the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging her to take off her head scarf and set an example to women in this predominantly Muslim country that is governed by strict secular laws. More and more women are veiling themselves in a show of religious piety.

Secularists view the head scarf as a symbol of political Islam and of female oppression.

Under Turkish law, head scarves are banned in schools and in public offices.

Erdogan, whose party has roots in Turkey’s Islamic movement, has made no secret of his desire to relax the laws on head scarves. Cautious of sensitivities of pro-secular circles, including the powerful military, however, he has said that he would bide his time on the issue.

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