The Turkish criminal courts have increasingly been used to further Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist agenda through hate-speech prosecutions. The May 22 sentencing of Turkish-Armenian Sevan Nisanyan continues this disturbing trend of strangling political and social discourse.
Mr. Nisanyan is a man of many interests and talents. Linguist, journalist and hotel entrepreneur, Mr. Nisanyan is not only known for his guidebook to small, affordable hotels in Turkey, but also was awarded the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by Turkey’s Human Rights Association for advocating the open discussion on the Armenian genocide. In 2008, he authored “The Mistaken Republic: 51 Questions about Ataturk and Kemalism,” arguing that Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, established a fascist dictatorship under the guise of nationalism. Mr. Nisanyan continues to frequently publish witty critical posts against the authoritarian bodies of the Turkish government on his blog, often with direct critiques on the Erdogan regime.
Following the worldwide protests last September by Muslims enraged by the release of the satirical YouTube film “The Innocence of Muslims,” Mr. Nisanyan argued in a Sept. 29 post that such discourse should not be criminalized. While mocking Muhammad is “ugly,” it does not constitute a “hate crime.” Putting emphasis on the distinction, Mr. Nisanyan wrote:
“Mocking an Arab leader — who claimed that he contacted God hundreds of years ago and who gained political, financial and sexual profit from this — is not a hate crime. Almost at the level of kindergarten, it is a test case of the thing called ‘freedom of expression.’”
Mr. Nisanyan subsequently explained that his 377-word posting was spawned by Mr. Erdogan’s uproar over “that cheapo Muhammad film” and his demand that the West recognize “Islamophobia as a crime against humanity.”
The post not only prompted 15 separate criminal complaints, but Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, an Erdogan confidant, called on prosecutors to launch an investigation. Breeching the sovereignty of the Turkish judiciary, he declared, “I’m announcing a crime. This is a typical hate crime. It is a hate crime, and it is a crime that is defined in our penal code.”
On Oct. 15, Mr. Nisanyan appeared on CNN Turk’s “Contrary to the Questions” to discuss the “The Innocence of Muslims” riots and the Turkish government’s denouncements of the film. The Supreme Board of Radio and Television fined the private broadcast on the grounds that Mr. Nisanyan’s comments “insulted the Prophet Muhammad,” “exceeded the boundaries of freedom of expression” and were “insulting and injurious” to society.
In April, a month before Mr. Nisanyan’s trial, world-renowned pianist Fazil Say was handed a 10-month suspended jail sentence under Article 216(3) for tweets made in jest about a call to prayer and heaven. On April 15, European Union foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton’s office criticized Mr. Say’s sentence, calling for Turkey “to fully respect freedom of expression.” Three days later, Mr. Bozdag defended the conviction because Mr. Say “was swearing at someone’s values,” and “[n]obody should confuse freedom of thought with freedom of swearing.”
With both Mr. Bozdag’s public declaration of Mr. Nisanyan’s guilt and endorsement of the Say verdict, combined with the radio-TV board’s ruling, Mr. Nisanyan could not expect an impartial trial. Prosecuted under Turkish Criminal Code Article 216(3), which declares, “Any person who openly disrespects the religious belief of a group is punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if such act causes potential risk for public peace,” the magistrate judge of course found Mr. Nisanyan guilty, sentencing him to a 13-month prison sentence, six weeks beyond the statutorily permissible punishment.
Currently appealing his conviction in the Court of Cessation, Mr. Nisanyan will have to serve the entire jail sentence should the magistrate’s sentence be upheld. The sentence violates the European Convention on Human Rights’ Article 6 (right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (freedom of expression). Mr. Nisanyan’s next best course is an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights.
Reporters Without Borders immediately condemned the sentence as a “grave violation of freedom of information” and called for the immediate repeal of the “draconian” Article 216(3), which “has no place in a secular country such as Turkey.”
While the Turkish government is secular, the Erdogan regime is not. Following his narrow 2002 victory, Mr. Erdogan declared, “Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.” Now in the 11th year of his rule, Mr. Erdogan has abandoned any moderate facade.
Neither the State Department nor any EU agency has issued a statement about Mr. Nisanyan’s plight. At this critical juncture, human rights organizations should file appeals on his behalf in the European Court of Human Rights. It is imperative that the international community become engaged; otherwise, opinions will continue to be criminalized by the Erdogan regime.
Sam Nunberg serves as director of the Legal Project, an activity of the Middle East Forum.