Turkey Focus 2013: Fazıl Say

Fazil Say

Fazıl Say is an internationally renowned classical composer, concert pianist and writer, whose orchestral pieces have been performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, among others. A prolific composer, Say has penned a great number of orchestral works, oratorios, concertos and chamber music in a career spanning over 20 years. He has also written three books on his life and music.

In 2012 Say, an outspoken critic of Prime Minister Erdoğan, was charged with religious defamation under Article 216/3 of the Turkish Penal Code in response to a series of messages posted on Twitter. He was also charged under Article 218 of the Turkish Penal Code, which increases sentences by half for offences committed ‘via press or broadcast’. Say, who denied the charges, faced up to 18 months in prison if found guilty.

The claimant who brought the case against Say has argued that the tweets publicly degraded the holy values of three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Say’s lawyer Meltem Akyol denied that his tweets were degrading to religious values, highlighting the fact that one of those included in the indictment was not only a re-tweet, but a direct quotation from a verse written by Omar Khayyam. Another simply stated ‘I am an atheist and I am proud to be able to say this so comfortably’.

On 15 April 2013, Fazıl Say received a ten-month suspended jail sentence for his comments. On learning of the trial outcome, Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN, said:

This is a case that should never have come to trial. When a figure as eminent as Fazıl Say is convicted, it sends a stark message to everyone in Turkey that the right to freedom of speech is severely restricted. Freedom of expression includes the freedom to provoke, outrage and offend. The suspended sentence handed down today is a significant chill for writers, journalists, publishers and activists in Turkey.

Less than two weeks later, on 26 April, the 29th Criminal Court in Istanbul reportedly annulled the decision to suspend the sentence. Say will now face a retrial.

Fazıl Say is gravely concerned about the negative impact a prison sentence would have on his career and may consider moving abroad as a result of the ‘growing culture of intolerance’ in Turkey. Even those who are usually critical of Say have voiced concerns over this case, which they believe could be damaging to Turkey’s international reputation. Meanwhile Egemen Bağış, the minister for EU affairs with whom the PEN International delegation met during their mission to Turkey last November, has been reported as saying that the case against Say should be dismissed, describing the tweets in question as ‘his right to babble’.

English PEN believes that the charges against Say are in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Our colleagues at PEN Turkey are currently under investigation for ‘insulting the state’ as a result of critical comments about Say’s prosecution. The PEN Turkey board (President Tarık Günersel, Vice-President Halil İbrahim Özcan, General Secretary Sabri Kuşkonmaz, Treasurer Tülin Dursun, and board members Zeynep Oral and Mario Levi) and poet and critic Nihat Ateş (who uploaded the content to the PEN Turkey website) were called in for questioning in January 2013 by the Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office. English PEN and PEN International have protested the investigation at the highest levels.

English PEN Actions for Fazıl Say

About Cat Lucas

Cat Lucas is English PEN's Writers at Risk Programme Manager

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