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Turkish Pianist In Court For Irreverent Tweets

Supporters of world-renowned Turkish pianist Fazil Say stand behind a banner reading "Our voice is with you" during a protest held outside an Istanbul court, on October 18.
Concert pianist Fazil Say has played with the New York Philharmonic, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, and served as a cultural ambassador for the European Union.

For years, that has made Say a widely-regarded asset in his home country, Turkey.

But today, it is not Say's musical talent -- as a classical and jazz pianist and composer -- that most interests Turkish authorities. Rather, it is his propensity for making irreverent comments about religion.

The 42-year old artist appeared in an Istanbul court on October 18 to face charges of "publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation" and "inciting hatred and public enmity."

Those charges -- slapped on Say by prosecutors in June -- carry a maximum of 18 months in jail if he is convicted.

In the hearing, Say rejected the charges and demanded his acquittal before the trial was adjourned until February 14 to allow both sides more time to prepare.

Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (file photo)
Turkish pianist and composer Fazil Say (file photo)
Among the reasons Say is in court is a joke he made about a muezzin -- the person leading the traditional Muslim call to prayer -- in a tweet.

After hearing a call to prayer that lasted just 22 seconds, instead of the normal several minutes, from a nearby mosque, he tweeted: "Why such haste? Have you got a mistress waiting or a raki on the table?"

Some Muslims considered the remark unacceptable as Islam bans alcohol, including raki, a widely served liquor made from anis seeds.

Freedom Of Expression

But for Say's supporters, the issue is not just religion but freedom of speech.

They say that the case against the pianist follows a pattern of arbitrary crackdowns on any remarks deemed offensive by the Islamist-led government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"We believe that this case is mostly against freedom of expression. Therefore, I am here to stand in solidarity," said Sevim Dagdelen, a German politician of Turkish origin, who was among a crowd outside the courtroom to support Say.

The reason for their anger: an increasing tendency for intellectuals and writers to get hauled into court.

The most notable is Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. He went on trial in 2005 for "insulting Turkishness" after saying in a Swiss newspaper that Turks "have killed 30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians."

Pamuk's trial, which caused international outrage, was later dropped on technical grounds. But lesser-known journalists, writers, human rights activists, and politicians have been less fortunate. They have been prosecuted and given prison sentences or fines for violating vague laws that limit what they can say about history, religion, or terrorism.

Need For Reform

Anthony Mills, deputy head of the International Press Institute in Vienna, a press-freedom watchdog, says the cases point to a need for judicial reforms in Turkey.

"Whether it is cases that are linked to the Islamist nature of the government or whether it is cases linked to Turkey's terrorism laws, much of this is about the vague interpretation of laws," Mills says.

"There are still about 70 journalists in prison in Turkey, all or almost all of them jailed under terrorism laws."

He notes that under terrorism laws, judges can interpret even a journalist holding an interview with a militant as a terrorist act.

In a report on Turkey's progress toward membership issued last week, the European Union criticized the country for "recurring infringements of the right to liberty and security and to a fair trial, as well as of the freedom of expression."

The EU said restrictions on media freedoms and an increasing number of court cases against writers and journalists remained "serious issues."

With Say's case now in court, one can also add restrictions on remarks by concert pianists to that list of concerns.