RIGHTS > Famed pianist Fazıl Say sentenced for blasphemy


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.”


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Notice on comments

Rorschach ~

4/18/2013 7:56:48 PM

Let's look at this from the other side of the coin. The Islamic call to prayer basically says that all other religions are false. So that means that five times a day (and night), people who hold non-Islamic religious beliefs (Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and yes - even Atheists, etc.) - are being insulted, and could (under the existing laws of Turkey) legitimately sue every single imam for blasphemy....

mara mcglothin

4/18/2013 3:43:31 PM

ANTON No you are not correct. While I might choose my words wisely so as not to hurt someone's feelings, if their feelings are hurt by my words then it is their problem. Some commentor last week said that the Last Supper didn't really take place. Since I am Christian, should I now have the right to sue this commentor for his lack of belief in Christian doctrine? No He has a right to his opinion and I have a right to mine. Period.

Levent Vatandas

4/18/2013 1:21:11 PM

I am not Turkish, I am a Muslim, I love Mevlana Celaleddin (RUMI), Ottoman Klasik Muzik but also enjoy Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart. I see that in all people, no matter what country or religion, love and respect exists. Also do I see frustration and the inner urge to be heard,disregarding my opinion on the tweets no state should interfere but also indeed mutual respect should prevail.

anton supertramp

4/17/2013 5:53:44 PM

@mara when did i insult you? besides in france you cant say holocaust not happened they will fine and jail you for this its not written rule but thre is moral limit to freedom of speech we dont go around saying everything we like for we should have respect for others sensitivities simple as that, am i not right :)?

Vargen Vargen

4/17/2013 5:12:20 PM

Nageyc. You have totally misunderstood the legislation around the hollocaust. It is an act of the countries involved in it and a way of showing the rest of the world that you will never deny what you have done. You can see it as an extreme form of a public apology. I am in favor of Freedom of speech, but Germany (and some other European countries) did the right thing here. What they do is to shout to the whole world "we know what happened and will never deny it".

mara mcglothin

4/17/2013 3:11:55 PM

Exactly WHAT'S GOING ON! NAGEYEC You can question the Holocaust all you want in the USA. Amedidijad did on the stage at Columbia University. He wasn't arrested or fined, but he did make a lot of people laugh in his face. You can well imagine his shock at college kids being allowed to openly mock him. I was there. It was great. YOu have the right to say what you like period.

ij oxx

4/17/2013 2:45:59 PM

Freedom of speech? I must say it is definitely not the case in Turkey. If you are jailed or threatened to be jailed for your opinions or views regarding political leaders and/or religion, freedom is non-existent. Running down the street naked in America may get you in small trouble, but America doesn't penalize you for your views. In America we can tell our political leaders anything we want without threatening their safety of course, and still be free.

What's Goin' On?

4/17/2013 10:28:46 AM

In order for Turkiye to be truly democratic, it must have real "freedom of speech." Unfortunately for Turkiye and the Turkish public, the AKP Party prioritizes it's cronies and conservative Islam before the greater good for the country. No matter the country, no matter what your religion is, you should keep your religion to yourself, and not use it to intimidate or oppress others. True Democracy = Secularism (Separation of Religion & State), and Separation of Powers between branches of gov't.

Tekion Particle

4/16/2013 11:53:47 PM

NADIRI BASARAN, you are so funny, no evidence of evolution!... Are you a graduate of Imam Hatip or something, because you certainly sound like one.

Nageyec Conduz

4/16/2013 9:58:21 PM

@US obsever, it looks like you misunderstood or completely ignored what I have said. I agree that freedom is a priceless gift which ought to defend in all cost. But it doesn't mean you can do anything you want. for example, in many western countries including the US I am sure, walking nude on streets is unlawful. Also, in those countries, if you question the holocaust even though you did not offend any one you still go to jail. Are we not free to question the authenticity of the history?
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