Sevan Nişanyan (1956), an Armenian Intellectual from Turkey, was handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months after making the fatal mistake of using mocking language about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, in a blog entry on September 2012. He has been held in a maximum-security Turkish prison since 2 January 2014. He will not be eligible for parole until 2024.
Nisanyan is a man of multiple achievements. A graduate of Yale (BA 1979) and Columbia (MA 1983), he taught linguistic history at Istanbul’s prestigious Bilgi University. His Etymological Dictionary of Modern Turkish (first ed. 2002, currently in 3rd ed.) is the main work of reference in its field. He has also frequently written on cultural and historical topics, in what are erudite, witty and often provocative studies of the Turkish national psyche. His targets have included Atatürk and Islam, two “untouchables” of Turkish public discourse.
Nisanyan is also known for his work at Şirince, an ancient hill village in the South Aegean, where he has lived with his family since 1992. A self-taught architect, Nisanyan led the effort to preserve and renovate the village, using strictly traditional techniques and forms. A long with prominent mathematician Ali Nesin and others, he founded a series of unconventional academic institutions in Şirince, including a mathematics institute, a philosophical academy and a theatre school. His work has received various accolades and was nominated for the prestigious Aga Khan Award for architecture.
In recent years Nisanyan frequently wrote about the threat that rising Islamism posed to our civil liberties. On 22 September 2012, in response to a proposed government bill to tighten blasphemy laws, he wrote that mockery of “an age-old Arab leader who made political, financial and sexual profit by claiming contact with Deity” must come under the protection of free speech. His statement was vilified by several close associates of then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He was demonized in the pro-government press. Demonstrations in the south-eastern city of Batman called for his death. In May 2013 he was sentenced to 15 months of jail under article 216 of the Turkish Penal Code, which regulates “insulting religious sensibilities” – the third time that this article had been invoked in recent years, and the first time it had ever been applied to a member of a non-Muslim minority.
This case, however, was allowed to languish at the Court of Appeals, where it seems likely to remain for a long time. Instead, the high court took up more than a dozen cases involving minor legal infractions in connection with Nisanyan’s building activities in Sirince, handing down harsh sentences for each case. These sentences now add up to over 16 years, and yet more may be to come.
For anyone familiar with the workings of the Turkish legal system, it is obvious that the construction charges are a smokescreen, and that Nisanyan is being punished for his political and religious impertinence, made all the more serious by the fact that he is an ethnic Armenian. In fact, Nisanyan is the only person in Turkey who is currently in jail under article 65 of Law 2863, which governs “unlicensed construction in a historical heritage site”, and this in a country where over half of all construction is estimated to be illegal, and where the presidential palace, completed in 2014, was built without license on a listed heritage site in defiance of a court injunction.