A Turkish author and human rights activist of Armenian descent has been sentenced to 13 months in prison for blasphemy by a court in Istanbul.
Human Rights First, a New York-based organization, reported that Sevan Nisanyan was convicted of “insulting the religious beliefs held by a section of society” under Turkey’s anti-blasphemy laws over the contents of a blog he wrote last September. Nisanyan’s conviction comes only one month after another prominent Turk, pianist Fazil Say, received a suspended 10-month prison sentence for “openly denigrating Islam” in a series of comments on his Twitter account.
“The Turkish judiciary is using prison sentences to intimidate those who express their views peacefully,” said Joelle Fiss of HRF. “This is a worrisome trend. Punishing people for expressing their opinions violates international law and has adverse consequences. Nisanyan’s conviction should be overturned on appeal.”
Blasphemy laws are in the books in a number of Muslim countries, including Turkey and Pakistan.
“Such laws are a tool for suppressing freedom of speech,” HRF noted.
In the blog that offended Turkish authorities, Nisanyan made a reference to the Prophet Muhammad, where he said: “It is not [a] ‘hate crime’ to poke fun at some Arab leader who, many [hundreds of] years ago, claimed to have established contact with [a] Deity and [gained] political, economic and sexual profit as a result. It is almost a kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression.”
The Vatican Insider reported that Nisanyan accused the ruling AKP party of steering the trial and pushing for conviction in their ongoing attempts to “re-Islamize” Turkey.
Nisanyan’s blog was still active as of Thursday afternoon, New York time. In a blog dated May 22, he said he will appeal his conviction (a process that could take up to a year). He said he does not expect to go to jail anytime soon.
He also revealed his statement to the court over his case:
”This person named Muhammad has claimed to have established communication with the Maker of the Universe – God forgive my sins – and to have received a book from Her. This, in my conscience and belief, is blasphemy of the worst kind. Yet I do not bring a legal complaint against this person. For everyone has the right to believe in whatever silliness they wish and to take for truth whatever superstition they choose, so long as they do not violate the rights of others.
“In consequence of his claim to have established contact with Deity, this Muhammad, who was a lowly merchant, acquired political dominion over all Arabia and gained the financial means to raise 30,000-strong armies. Again as a result of his claim to ‘Prophethood,’ we learn from canonical Islamic sources that he acquired a total of at least 11 wives and two unwed concubines. In other words, it is an incontrovertible historical fact that this person made political, economic and sexual profit from his alleged contact with Deity. Now, profiting is not a crime, nor is it always a morally reprehensible act. To state that this person profited from claiming “prophet-hood” does not constitute an imputation of crime or even of immorality. It is merely a statement of historic fact.
“Nevertheless I did not make that statement of fact in my article, considering it might be distasteful to some people. I carefully avoided any statement of the type “Muhammad was this and that”. I simply argued that, IF someone wished to make such a statement of fact it would be their most natural right to do so, and that this right should be protected by public hand against violation by hostile individuals or groups.
“I believe that only an ignorant person devoid of the most basic notion of law would argue the contrary.
“Telling the historical or legal truth may sometimes be hurtful to the sensitivities, or prejudices, of some people. This is regrettable. Yet I don’t think it would be possible, in a civilized legal system, to derive a legal injury or right from this fact. Nor do I think that there is any public benefit in tying the right to tell the facts to the pre-condition to heed the fine sensibilities of this or that group.”
A blogger calling himself Torcant Torcant wrote on the Freethoughtblogs website last month that Nisanyan is openly atheistic and has been targeted with death threats.
“Even on Twitter, there are open traceable death threats sent to him,” Torcant wrote. “On a lucky day, he gets some very graphic insults and curses. On a bad day, he gets graphic, descriptive death threats.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.