By Mike Kenson
As the succession of arrests and abuses which have come to distinguish the period between the 2016 coup attempt and the April presidential referendum lurches from one excess to the next, it is perhaps too easy to overlook the victims of vindictive government decisions prior to the latest round of purges. The idiosyncratic Sevan Nisanyan, a Turkish-Armenian writer and intellectual, is one such figure currently serving a 17-year sentence in a high-security prison in Menemen, near Izmir.
Mr Nisanyan’s lengthy sentence is the cumulative result of a number of minor infractions related to his building activities in Sirince, a village in Turkey’s Aegean region, which the writer moved to in the 1990s and began to restore using traditional materials. Nisanyan made a number of achievements in his projects in Sirince, including playing a major role in gaining the village recognition as a national heritage site, and the construction of a “mathematics village” for students and academics to gather and explore their field. The project was a collaboration between Nisanyan and Ali Nesin, a mathematics professor and the son of the writer Aziz Nesin. The work undertaken by Nisanyan helped to reinvigorate the village, which as it was renovated and beautified began to draw an increasing number of tourists.
After such contributions to the area he had made his home, Nisanyan was sentenced to nearly two decades in prison for violations as minor as building a 40m2 shed on his own land. Such criminal charges are particularly unusual in Turkey, a “nirvana for illegal construction” where entire neighbourhoods spring up without building permits. In fact, even President Erdogan’s $600 million palace project went ahead on protected land in spite of a court order to halt construction. The perversity of this situation has led many to suggest that the writer is being punished not for his construction practices, but for his identity as a forthright Armenian atheist with a habit of stirring controversy with his views and comments.
Indeed, Nisanyan’s sentencing came not long after he appeared in court for a satirical, provocative article he wrote in relation to the “Innocence of Muslims” short film, which sparked angry protest around the world in 2012 for its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Nisanyan wrote to criticise a “hate bill” put together by the AKP government in response to the film, mocking the notion that an atheists’ depiction of Muhammad as a worldly, political figure who claimed to have made contact with god should be regarded as hate speech. The article earned him the fury of government officials and the Islamist wing of Turkish society and eventually a 13.5-month sentence for “insulting the Prophet Muhammad”.-
The episode was by no means the first time Nisanyan’s outspoken style caused him trouble, with his views on Islam, Turkish Republican history and the Armenian issue bringing him the enmity of a number of his country’s most powerful groups. One of the most notably controversial incident among these was the publication of his book, “The Wrong Republic”, which took a critical view of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and questioned the legitimacy of his rule and of the enduring mythology that has been spun around him.
Perhaps it is Nisanyan’s outspokenness that has left him without a particular “camp”, which makes his situation all the more unstable in a country where the majority of imprisoned public figures can at least count on the support of their own faction. Whatever the reason, it would be a loss for the country’s culture if the exceptionally talented thinker is allowed to languish, forgotten, in prison.
A petition for Nisanyan (in Turkish) is available here: