The (Sham) Case against Sevan Nisanyan


EditorialCartoonBy Edmond Y. Azadian

Jurisprudence in Turkey has not progressed much since the days of the Ottoman Sultans. Armenian literature has a lesser known satirist, called Arantzar who ridiculed the Turkish laws of his day. In one of his stories an Armenian is convicted by a Turkish court for having insulted the beard of a mullah (very much like Sevan Nisanyan’s insult of the Prophet). But upon appeal, the merciful judge acquits the offender on the basis of the fact that the very number of hairs on the mullah’s beard, which were subject of the offense, had already fallen during the morning after a vigorous combing.

We wish that Nisanyan’s case could have a similar outcome. (See related story on Page 1.)

Turkey currently is a candidate for membership in the European Union, upon whose preconditions the Erdogan government has been introducing some improvements in his country’s laws, especially in the area of human rights and freedom of speech, never mind the continuing carnage of Kurds and attack on the free press with the incarceration of increasing numbers of journalists.

Turkish national Dogu Perinçek insults the Armenian Genocide in Switzerland and it is absolved by the European Court of Human Rights, supposedly in defense of the offender’s right to free speech, yet the same country, clamoring for the rights of Mr. Perinçek, sentences an Armenian intellectual, Sevan Nisanyan, to 25 years of incarceration under trumped-up charges for speaking the truth about Turkish history. People could accept warped legal logic from a country like Turkey, but it is unexpected for a European court to emulate Turkish thinking.

Incidentally, there was a worldwide outcry when Turkish journalists, including the editor of Cumhuriyet, were jailed, while no similar movement has taken place in the two years since the unjust arrest of Nisanyan.

People of extraordinary talents are often colorful and they tend to challenge the social, moral and political norms of the day. In the process, they carve out new ways of thinking which later, in their turn, become norms in society, meanwhile sacrificing their lives. Nisanyan fits the mold of those social rebels and pioneers (such as Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Giordano Bruno, etc.); unfortunately, he lives in the wrong country for this.

He is an erudite person and has contributed to his society tremendously. Yet, he has been sent to prison under false charges. There is an online petition at change.org demanding his release, but the petition has not yet attained international traction, presenting a challenge to the global Armenian community.

But his case deserves attention far beyond that of the Armenians, since he has become a universal symbol of justice (or injustice). He has been in jail for two years and he faces another 11.5 years and if pending charges against him are upheld, his punishment may be extended to 25 more years.

Orhan Kemal Gengiz has written in an article in Al Monitor, “Sevan Nisanyan is being punished for doing illegal construction on his land in Turkey, which is a haven for illegal construction, and is now incarcerated at Izmir-Torbali prison. Moreover, instead of being awarded a Nobel Prize for architecture for what he has created in Shirince, he faces about 50 years in prison terms for 17 cases brought against him. In fact, everybody knows that the case against Nisanyan has nothing to do with construction infractions. He is being punished for his history and literary work challenging the official ideology.”

Thanks to Nisanyan’s initiative, Shirince has become a tourist paradise attracting 600,000 to 800,000 visitors every year. He and his wife moved to that former Greek village, which had become dilapidated, and bought many pieces of property and restored them to the original condition, plus all the modern updates a tourist may like. In fact, what he has done is much like what the Tufenkians have done in Armenia with restoring old properties with all the modern facilities. Instead of being celebrated for his efforts in increasing Turkish tourism, he is being punished for having a mind.

Istanbul may be considered the world capital of gecekondu (fly-by-night) construction, yet no one has been convicted and received jail time for building those illegal constructions.

It is obvious that Nisanyan’s sentence has more to do with his outspoken nature than his construction activities. Nisanyan himself believes that his identity and opinions are the main cause of his persecution.

He is a graduate of Columbia and Yale. He has written an unusual book on the etymology of the Turkish language, reminding readers of the linguistic achievements of Hagop Martayan, whom Ataturk himself called Dilaçar, for his contribution to the development of the modern Latin-alphabet based Turkish language.

But Nisanyan’s troubles began when he published his book titled The Wrong Republic, questioning the foundation of the current Republic of Turkey and the legitimacy of the Ataturk rule. His conclusions have already been affirmed by Turkish historian Taner Akçam, who has traced all Ittihadist war criminals who later joined the Ataturk movement to build modern Turkey on the blood of the Armenians and Christians in general.

Ataturk literally means the father of Turks or Turkey. The Turkish writer Aziz Nesin has even gone one step further by posing the following question: “Why should a bastard be called the father of my nation or my own father?”

In later years, another Turkish historian based in Holland, Ugur Ungor, published his book titled Making of Modern Turkey, where he demonstrated that the affluent class in modern Turkey sits on the confiscated properties and the wealth of the Armenians. Yet Nisanyan is in jail for the same statements. On top of that, he has been vocal on the issue of the Armenian Genocide. He has received also many death threats for his opinions on religious repression and perhaps his being in jail has proven to be a blessing in disguise, as otherwise he could have shared the fate of Hrant Dink, whose death could not only have been stopped by the authorities, but was indeed sought.

As far as the actual case against him is concerned, the law that landed Nisanyan in jail had already been repealed. Opposition HDP Party Member of Parliament, Pervin Boudan, has questioned the validity of the law in parliament to no avail. Law 2863 Section 65 was deleted from the Constitution in 2012 yet the judge on the case has insisted on using it. The conviction also contravenes the 6th and 7th articles of the European Human Rights Court.

In today’s xenophobic atmosphere generated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religious zeal, the niceties of actual laws do not cut any ice.

But the case at hand is a challenge for all Armenians around the world as well as for human rights organizations. The world public opinion has to be sensitized to unmask modern Turkey’s human rights abuses, which otherwise will render into a mockery its bid to join the European Union.

It is time to release Sevan Nisanyan from prison. He is garrulous, contrary and not ready to appease or hide his colors in order to live a safe life. And that is precisely the sort of person that Turkey needs in order to grow into a democracy.