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Turkish pianist Fazil Say in 2011
Turkish pianist Fazil Say in 2011
Ismail Saymaz

ISTANBUL – Earlier this month, a Turkish court sentenced world-famous pianist Fazil Say to a ten-month suspended jail sentence for “insulting religious values.”

Say, 43, had tweeted the following verse from 11th century poet Omar Khayyam: “You say that the rivers flow with wine, is Heaven a tavern? You say that you will give every believer two very beautiful women, is Heaven a brothel?”

He also retweeted a missive posted by someone else: “I am not sure if you have noticed, but where there is a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, thief or idiot, they are all pro-Allah. Is this a paradox?”

In another tweet, he made fun of the muezzin’s call for prayer: “The muezzin recited the evening prayer in 22 seconds. Prestissimo con fuoco!!! What is your hurry? A lover? Raki?” (raki is a Turkish alcoholic drink flavored with aniseed.)

Hulusi Pur, the judge who handed down the April 15 ruling, said the tweets "do not contribute anything to the public debate but unnecessarily offend the common values of Allah, heaven and hell of the three major religions in the world, and were written to denigrate religious values by creating the opinion that these concepts are meaningless, unwarranted and worthless.”

He added, “the contents of the tweets cannot be considered within the scope of the practice of the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion and expression.”

According to Judge Pur, freedom of expression can be limited under some circumstances according to the second article of the European Convention on Human Rights. He referred to three past verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to support the justification of his verdict, including a 1995 ruling that Turkish authorities did not violate freedom of expression by convicting a book publisher who'd printed insults against Allah, Islam, the Prophet and the Koran.

Article 216(3) of the Turkish Criminal Code states: "Any person who openly denigrates the religious beliefs of a group shall be punished with imprisonment from six months to one year if the act is conducive to disrupting the public peace.”

Between heaven and hell

The judge said that the possibility that these tweets could disrupt public peace incorporated a virtual threat and the court did not have to wait for that threat to become a fact before sentencing.

The guilty verdict complies both domestic and international legal proceedings, Judge Pur argued, since concepts like heaven and hell are considered holy in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Important values were mocked and demeaned and believers were openly insulted by being called a louse, a non-entity, a lowlife, thief or idiot” while heaven was likened to a “tavern” and a “brothel”, stated the judge.

Say’s lawyer Meltem Akyol said her client did not write the incriminating tweets, only retweeted them, and that there was “no intentional act of denigration or mockery.”

Since the verdict was issued, columnists from the Turkish press have shown the wide range of opinions on such a hot-button subject, even though the majority of observers argued that Say deserved to be punished for insulting religious values.

The commentary included:

*Ahmet Kekeç from the Daily Star said although the tweets were “problematic, vulgar and rude,” Say should not be convicted for them.

*Berat Özipek, also from the Daily Star, said he was hurt by Say’s tweets but added: “However, I have no intention of sacrificing the freedom of expression because I was hurt.”

*Ali Ä°hsan KarahasanoÄŸlu from daily newspaper Yeni Akit said Say was guilty, and that he should have gotten a harsher punishment.

*Davut Åžahin of the Milli Gazete said: “I have no doubt that he would have received a higher penalty in another country.”

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