x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Turkish composer Fazil Say 'insulted Islam' on Twitter

One of Turkey's best-known artists says he feels 'sorry for my country' after being found guilty of insulting Islam, as European Union expresses concern over freedom of expression. Thomas Seibert reports from Istanbul

Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say, pictured during a rehearsal at Laeiszhalle in Hamburg, has been found guilty of defaming Islam.
Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say, pictured during a rehearsal at Laeiszhalle in Hamburg, has been found guilty of defaming Islam.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY // A court yesterday handed a suspended 10-month jail sentence to one of Turkey's best-known artists for insulting Islam on Twitter.

The verdict against Fazil Say, 43, a classical composer and pianist, immediately drew criticism locally and abroad over concerns that Turkey is limiting free speech.

After a six-month trial, Istanbul's 19th magistrates' court ruled that Say, an atheist and opponent of the religiously conservative government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had "insulted the religious values held by a part of the population", according to Turkey's Anadolu news agency.

The court set a five-year probation period, meaning that Say could go to prison if he is found guilty of a similar offence within that period. The state prosecutor had asked for a prison sentence of 18 months.

The European Union, which Turkey wants to join, voiced concern about the sentence. A spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the verdict "underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression".

Say, who is on tour in Germany, said he was disappointed with the verdict and "sorry for my country". He said the decision was worrying for the state of freedom of speech and belief in Turkey.

When the trial opened last October, Say told the court that he did not want to insult anyone with his tweets.

He later said he suspected followers of Mr Erdogan to be behind the trial. "They want to make me believe in God and make me spend one and a half years in prison," the musician said in December.

Speaking after the verdict, Turkey's minister for culture, Omer Celik, suggested he did not agree with the court. "I do not want anybody to face the judiciary because of something he has said," Mr Celik said. But he also said it was up to the court to decide in Say's case.

The charges related to several tweets by Say from April last year in which he criticised a muezzin and made references to heaven and alcohol.

Emre Bukagili, a Turkish businessman who filed the initial complaint, said Say had "offended all believers professedly by attempting to mock religious values according to his own thoughts". He added that Say was free to think and believe what he wanted, "but this does not grant that person the right to insult another's beliefs and ideas".

The verdict against Say triggered a wave of criticism in Turkey.

"It is vital for the progress of our democracy to understand that freedom of expression is not only valid for pleasant ideas," the Press Council, an association of journalists, announced.

Observers in Turkey and abroad said they were concerned about what they saw as increasing restrictions on the right of free speech in Turkey. Cahit Berkay, a well-known musician, told the Hurriyet newspaper that he was shocked by the verdict. "Now I am afraid."

Emma Sinclair-Webb, senior Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that while Say did not have to go to prison, he now had "a black mark against his name".

She said the verdict made "a mockery of the criminal justice system, with serious consequences for those, like Say, who find themselves the victims of it".

Others drew attention to the fact that the verdict against Say was partially based on quotes from the work of the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam, which the musician had tweeted.

The verdict "has the same logic as the sentence against prime minister Erdogan", Deniz Ulke Aribogan, a political scientist and member of a government-sponsored advisory council for a peaceful solution of the Kurdish conflict, said on Twitter. Mr Erdogan served four months in prison in 1999 after a conviction for quoting a poem in a speech that a court said was an incitement to hatred.

tseibert@thenational.ae

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