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A Turkish court sends chills through the country’s artistic world, handing pianist Fazıl Say a 10-month sentence for insulting religion

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Fazıl Say, Hürriyet Photo

Fazıl Say, Hürriyet Photo

World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a suspended 10-month prison sentence today for “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” bringing to a close a controversial case while sparking fiery reaction in Turkey and abroad.

“I am sorry for my country after the court’s ruling,” Say said after the sentence was meted out. “I am disappointed in the sense of freedom of speech. I am worried more for the state of freedom of speech and belief in Turkey than I am for my own sentence.”

Say had been the focus of a legal battle since he retweeted several lines, which are attributed to poet Omar Khayyam in April 2012, saying: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

He had also tweeted, “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?"

Say’s lawyers said the artist had “no intention of insulting or degrading” religion with the tweets, but their defense failed to sway the court.

Say was initially handed eight months for “committing and insisting on committing a crime” before the court tacked on an additional four years because the artist voiced the insult through “a mode of publication.” The sentence was eventually reduced to 10 months, which was then suspended, allowing Say to remain free if he completes a supervised five-year term without committing a similar crime.

Reactions mount

Reaction against the ruling was swift on both social and conventional media, with famous names in Turkish art stepping up to show support for the convicted pianist.

Turkish author Elif Şafak tweeted, “I am deeply surprised and saddened to hear about the sentence given to well-known pianist Fazıl Say.” Journalists Ece Temelkuran and Kanat Atkaya also tweeted statements of support for the pianist.

Prominent film critic and writer Atilla Dorsay, who recently resigned from daily Sabah over recent clashes at Emek Theater, described the ruling as “horrid,” according to daily Hürriyet.

“For whatever reason, it isn’t within sanity to hand down such a punishment to a world-renowned artist,” Dorsay said.

The case also caused a strong backlash internationally as well, with the European Union and PEN voicing concern over freedom of speech in the country.

"The conviction of Fazil Say is a flagrant violation of his freedom of expression, made possible by one of Turkey's most draconian laws," said Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey, Andrew Gardner, in a written statement. "If you express an opinion the authorities don't like, you could be next," he said.

A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Brussels was “concerned” by the 10-month sentence, which “underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression,” Agence France-Presse reported.

English PEN also released a statement on the ruling, saying the institution was “shocked” to learn of the sentence.

“The conviction is in violation of Say’s right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and should be overturned immediately,” the statement said.

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said the case “should have never come to trial,” and that “the suspended sentence handed down today is a significant chill for writers, journalists, publishers and activists in Turkey.”

Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik said despite not wishing for “anyone to be involved with judicial decisions over what they said,” it should be taken into account that there was “a judicial decision here.”

“It is a matter that should be handled by the people of law,” Çelik said. “I wouldn’t wish for any citizen, artist, man of culture, politician to go through troubles over freedom of speech. I wouldn’t want them to be involved with judicial decisions and proceedings. However, there is a judicial decision here that came out as a result.”

April/15/2013

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