May 29, 2013

Sevan Nişanyan, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, wrote a blog entry last September stating that critical comments about religion don’t constitute hate speech. “Making fun of an Arab leader who claimed he contacted God hundreds of years ago and received political, financial and sexual benefits is not hate speech,” he said. “It is an almost kindergarten-level test of what is called freedom of expression.”

An Istanbul court disagreed and on May 22 – for these very words – sentenced him to 13 months in prison for “insulting the religious values of one section of the population.” What makes his prosecution even more chilling is the fact that it followed public comments by Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ recommending that Nişanyan should be prosecuted.

There have been dramatic developments in Turkey in recent months as the government embarks on a bold attempt to end the entrenched conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to start down the long road to peace with the Kurdish minority. While the sight of uniformed and armed PKK fighters – male and female – retreating to camps over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan is tangible evidence of progress toward peace, the Turkish authorities and judiciary are still cracking down on people who express dissent in words rather than with an AK47.

One of Turkey’s most fundamental human rights problems is in fact intolerance of free speech. Politicians regularly sue journalists for defamation.  Editors and publishers are mostly unwilling to permit much criticism of the government for fear of harming their bosses’ other business interests.

The largest group of people being prosecuted for criticizing the government are accused of illegal political activism.  The police, prosecutors and courts label their activities “terrorism,” despite scant evidence of involvement in violence or material support to armed resistance. A couple of thousand local Kurdish activists are in jail. These are people who opted for non-violent political struggle in the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has members in parliament. Among them are elected mayors, journalists, students and human rights defenders, and many lawyers.

But not all of those targeted are even accused of terrorism. The targets of this clampdown include people who offend the government with satirical and even trivial criticisms.

Nişanyan’s conviction, which he has appealed, followed the conviction on April 15 of the well-known pianist Fazil Say, who received a 10-month suspended sentence on the same charge for several tweets and retweets poking fun at Islam. The public was divided, as it was in  Nişanyan’s case, but the real discussion should have been about whether what either of the two men said actually threatened the public order, amounted to hate speech or  deserved to be restricted on those grounds.

The European Court of Human Rights has found over and over that Turkey has violated free speech. But prosecutors, courts, and government figures are still applying different standards to Turkey, muzzling views they don’t want to hear. Most recently, there has been the spate of cases against people deemed to have denigrated the religious sentiments of the Sunni Muslim majority.

On May 30, the feminist lawyer Canan Arin faces a trial hearing for critical comments she made to lawyers at a meeting of the Antalya Bar Association in 2011 on the subject of violence against women. She homed in on the problem of early and forced marriage. After Arin cited the Prophet Muhammad and President Abdullah Gul as examples of men who married child brides, she was prosecuted both for “insulting religious values” and “insulting the president.” She faces a possible five year prison sentence.

It is unlikely that any of these three will go to prison in the end, but the fact that they were prosecuted at all demonstrates that the political transformation of Turkey to a rights-respecting democracy over the past decade is incomplete. The authorities have used the criminal justice system to muzzle or punish criticism of the state and official history throughout the republic. Rather than moving away from this model, the present government seems to be happy to continue the tradition by using the courts to fight a battle with anyone who touches on the subject of religion in ways they don’t like.

The political breakthrough with the PKK offers an important chance of securing progress on human rights for all of Turkey’s people. But as jailed Kurdish political activists and critics facing charges for offending someone in government have found out, that’s only part of what’s needed to secure progress on human rights for everyone. Moving toward a tolerant and democratic society also means that the authorities and the courts need to stop trying to silence their unarmed critics.

Emma Sinclair-Webb is a senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Turkey.