Online Petition Seeks Release of Sevan Nisanyan


NishanianVIENNA, Austria — A petition started on change.org seeks the release of Sevan Nisanyan, the Turkish-Armenian journalist who has been arrested on various charges since 2012. He has been held in a maximum-security prison since 2014. He was arrested on charges of violating zoning and building codes, charges which do not merit the harsh sentence. He has been a vocal and longtime critic of the regime.

Almost 12,000 have signed it so far.

The petition, which is reproduced below, is being sent to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu:

Sevan Nisanyan (60), a prominent Turkish intellectual of Armenian origin, was handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months after he made the fatal mistake of using mocking language about Muhammed, the prophet of Islam, in a blog entry in September 2012. He has been held in a maximum-security Turkish prison since January 2, 2014. He will not be eligible for parole until 2024.

Nisanyan is a man of multiple achievements. 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 written frequently on cultural and historical topics – 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 Sirince, 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. Along with Ali Nesin, a prominent mathematician, and others, he founded a series of unconventional academic institutions in Sirince, including a mathematics institute, a philosophical academy and a theater school. His work received awards, and was nominated for the prestigious Aga Khan Award for architecture.

In recent years Nisanyan wrote often about the rising Islamic threat to liberties. On 22 Sept. 2012, in response to a proposed government bill to tighten blasphemy laws, he wrote that mockery of “an ages 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 Mr. Erdogan, then prime minister. He was demonized in the pro-government press. Demonstrations in the southeastern city of Batman called for his death. In May 2013 he was sentenced to 15 months of jail under art. 216 of the Turkish Penal Code, which regulates “insulting religious sensibilities” – the third time that this article was invoked in recent years, and the first time ever that it was 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, and handed down drastic sentences for each case. These sentences now add up to 16-plus years, and yet more may be the come.

For anyone familiar with the workings of the Turkish legal system, it is obvious that the construction charges are a smokescreen, and Nisanyan is punished for his political and religious impertinence, made graver by the fact that he is an ethnic Armenian. Nisanyan is currently the only person in Turkey who is actually in jail under Law 2863, art. 65, 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 the presidential palace, completed in 2014, was itself built without license on a listed heritage site in defiance of a court injunction.

To sign, visit https://www.change.org/p/free-sevan-nisanyan