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Turkish Pianist Convicted of Blasphemy

Sun, April 21, 2013

A Turkish court has convicted pianist and composer Fazil Say of blasphemy and inciting hatred over a series of comments he made on Twitter last year. The musician was given a suspended 10-month jail term. His lawyer, Meltem Akyol, said his client would only have to serve the term if he committed a similar offence within the next five years.

The 43-year-old musician, who has played with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony and other world orchestras, was on trial for sending tweets last year, including one that joked about a religious leader and some Islamic practices.

Artists and intellectuals have repeatedly been targeted in Turkey for voicing their opinions, and Say's case has renewed concerns about the Turkish government's stance towards freedom of expression. Say has also been a vocal critic of the ruling AK party and its Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Say, who was not present at the hearing, issued a statement calling the verdict "a sad one for Turkey," and denied all the charges, saying they were politically motivated. "Although I am innocent and have not committed any crime, this decision I received is more worrisome for the freedom of expression and belief in Turkey than it is to me as a person," Say wrote on his Facebook page.

Say was accused of denigrating Islam in a series of tweets earlier last year. In one message he re-tweeted a verse from a poem by 11th-century Omar Khayyam, in which the Persian poet attacks pious hypocrisy. In the poem Khayyam writes, "You say rivers of wine flow in heaven, is heaven a tavern to you? You say two huris [companions] await each believer there, is heaven a brothel to you?"

In other tweets, he made fun of a muezzin (a caller to prayer) and other religious practices. Say joked about a call to prayer that he said lasted only 22 seconds, tweeting: "Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?" Raki is a traditional alcoholic drink made with aniseed. Islam forbids alcohol and many Islamists considered the remark unacceptable.

After the verdict, Omar Khayyam became a very popular topic on Twitter in Turkey with many re-posting the contentious verses.

The initial complaint against Say, which was filed by Emre Bukagili said that the musician had used "a disrespectful, offensive and impertinent tone toward religious concepts such as heaven and the call to prayer."

Turkey has a history of prosecuting its artists and writers. Erdogan and his government have been accused trying to dismantle Turkish secularism and of curbing freedom of expression. In a report published at the end of last month, Amnesty International called the lack of freedom of speech in Turkey one of the country's "most entrenched human rights problems."

The first government reaction after the court ruling came from Omer Celik, minister for culture and tourism. "I would not wish anyone to be put on trial for words that have been expressed. This is especially true of artists and cultural figures", he said speaking at the London Book Fair. However, Celik stressed that there was "a court decision."

German lawmaker, Sevim Dagdelen, who has campaigned for Say, called his conviction "a scandal," and said that Turkey's attempts to join the EU should be frozen. She also accused the court of making an example of Say to silence critics of the government.