Last updated: April 15, 2013 3:22 pm

Turkish pianist given suspended jail term

Fazil Say©Getty

A prominent Turkish musician has been given a 10-month suspended prison sentence for insulting the country’s religious values, in a case that has drawn international attention to the rule of law in Turkey.

Fazil Say, a classical pianist and composer, had compared Islamists in his tweets to “show-offs, thieves and buffoons” while citing the 12th century poet Omar Khayyam’s suggestion that promises of flowing wines and heavenly maidens could make paradise a bar or a brothel. Mr Say had also declared his status as an atheist on Twitter.

“I am very sorry on behalf of my country,” Mr Say said after the court decision. “This is more worrying for freedom of expression and belief in Turkey than it is for me myself – even though I have committed no fault.”

In passing its jail sentence, suspended for five years, Istanbul’s 19th penal court held that Mr Say had insulted the religious values adopted by part of the public – although critics of the case argue that public figures in Turkey have frequently insulted religious minorities without sanction in the Sunni Muslim majority country.

The European Commission condemned the verdict. “The commission underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights,” it said in a statement after the sentencing of the former EU cultural ambassador.

Organisations such as PEN, the anticensorship group, declared that Mr Say’s case was a test of freedom of expression at a time when the country is also under scrutiny for imprisoning a number of journalists.

Ministers in Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government have suggested that Mr Say should not have been prosecuted, while distancing themselves from the content of his remarks.

Sahin Alpay, a political scientist at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University, said the prosecution of the musician primarily reflected the authoritarian mindset of the country’s judiciary and prosecutors, with whom Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, is increasingly at odds.

“Fazil Say of course should not be prosecuted for what he says,” Mr Alpay said. “But I don’t explain this case by referring to Islamism on the part of the prime minister.” Instead, he grouped the Fazil Say affair with other cases in which prosecutors have pursued large numbers of people – primarily in connection with alleged plots known as Sledgehammer and Ergenekon.

Mr Erdogan has expressed frustration that increasing numbers of suspects have been detained in such cases – even though the plots were allegedly aimed at his own government.

Parliament has also recently pushed through legal reforms long championed by the EU and other international bodies. The European Commission last week welcomed the passage of a new judicial package as a “very positive development” for aligning Turkey with European Court of Human Rights case law, while saying that it fell short on the issue of conscientious objection. The EU and the UN have also praised another recent measure that bolster the rights of foreigners, particularly asylum seekers.

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