Turkish pianist's Twitter barbs land him conviction for insulting Islam

Fazil Say's case highlights a curtailing of free expression in Turkey that has also put 49 journalists in prison. He was convicted of insulting Islam in a series of mocking tweets.

Internationally renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say, seen during a concert in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2010. Mr. Say was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for insulting Islam because of messages on his Twitter feed considered by the court to be offensive to Muslims.

A Turkish court this week convicted one of the country’s most famous musicians for insulting Islam, highlighting building fears over protection of freedom of speech in the country.

Fazil Say, a world-renowned concert pianist, was sentenced to 10 months imprisonment for “insulting the religious values of a part of the population” because of messages on his Twitter feed considered by the court to be offensive to Muslims. The sentence, however, was suspended on the condition that he does not reoffend within five years.

Mr. Say, who was convicted by a court in Istanbul, said in a statement on his Facebook page that the verdict was “worrying for freedom of expression and religion in Turkey.”

Among nine tweets posted in April and cited by the court was one in which the musician joked about hearing an unusually short Muslim call to prayer. He wrote: "Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?" Raki is a popular alcoholic drink in Turkey.

The trial, which began in October last year, has stoked accusations against the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Islamist, whom critics accuse of clamping down on free speech.

Among them was the European Union, which Turkey aspires to join. Brussels was “concerned” by the sentence, which "underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression,” said a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, according to Agence France-Presse

Last year the European Commission strongly criticized curbs on free speech in Turkey in its annual progress report on the country’s membership bid.

“The increasing incidence of violations of freedom of expression raise serious concerns and freedom of the media continued to be further restricted in practice,” read the report, which was dismissed by the government, with one senior politician symbolically throwing a copy of it into a wastepaper bin on live television. 

Last December the Committee to Protect Journalists named Turkey as the world’s top jailer of journalists, with 49 behind bars.

“There are hundreds of other cases where people are actually imprisoned for offenses relating to freedom of speech,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey researcher for Human Rights Watch. “[Fazil Say’s case] is at the trivial end of these restrictions in Turkey.”

The musician, who has performed with the New York and Israel Philharmonic Orchestras, among others, is currently on tour in Germany and did not attend the hearing. 

“This is a sword of Damocles hanging over him,” says Ms. Sinclair-Webb. “He’s been firmly muzzled.”

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s minister for European affairs, backed the verdict. “Everyone should learn to respect what is sacred for others,” he said, according to the Hurriyet Daily News.

Curbs on freedom of expression are nothing new in Turkey. In 1998, before he became prime minister, Mr. Erdogan himself fell foul of the secular establishment of the time, and served four months of a 10-month prison sentence for inciting religious hatred in a speech.

A poem he recited, deemed to be an incitement to religious violence by the court, contained the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers."

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