Well-known linguist Sevan Nişanyan will not be eligible for parole in Turkey until 2024. Locked up in the overcrowded Turkish prison system, he has found his initial relatively short jail sentence for blasphemy getting ever longer as he has been subjected to a torrent of lawsuits on minor building infringements related to a mathematics village he founded.
Nişanyan, who is 60, spoke exclusively to Index on Censorship. He said he was being kept in appalling conditions. Moved from prison to prison since being jailed in January 2014, he is now being held in Menemen Prison, a “massively overcrowded and brain-dead institution”.
He added: “About two thirds of our inmates were recently moved elsewhere and the remainder pushed ever more tightly into overpopulated wards to make room for the thousands arrested in the aftermath of the coup attempt.”
Nişanyan’s ordeal started in 2012 when he wrote a blog post about free speech arguing for the right to criticise the Prophet Mohammed. Through notes passed out of his high security prison via his lawyer, Nişanyan told Index what he believes happened next:
“Mr Erdoğan, the then-prime minister, believes in micromanaging the country. He was evidently incensed.
“I received a call from his office inquiring whether I stood by my, erm, ‘bold views’ and letting me know that there was much commotion ‘up here’ about the essay. The director of religious affairs, the top Islamic official of the land, emerged from a meeting with Erdoğan to denounce me as a ‘madman’ and ‘mentally deranged’ for insulting ‘our dearly beloved prophet’.
“A top dog of the governing party, who later became justice minister, went on air to assure us that throughout history, no ‘filthy attempt to besmirch the name of our holy prophet’ has ever been left unpunished. Groups of so-called ‘concerned citizens’ brought complaints of blasphemy against me in almost every one of our 81 provinces. Several indictments were made, and eventually I was convicted for a year and three months for ‘injuring the religious sensibilities of the public’.”
But what happened afterwards was even more sinister. He found himself, while in prison, facing eleven lawsuits relating to a village he was building with the mathematician and philanthropist Ali Nesin. Nişanyan has been involved for many years in a project to reconstruct in traditional style the village of Şirince, near Ephesus, on Turkey’s Western seaboard. It is now a heritage site and popular tourist destination. And nearby, he and Nesin have built a mathematics village which offers courses to mathematicians from all over Turkey and operates as a retreat for maths departments in other countries. They hope it will be the beginnings of a “free” university.
It was this project the Turkish authorities decided to focus on. Nişanyan was given two years for building a one-room cottage in his garden without the correct licence, then two additional years for the same cottage. Nine more convictions for infringements of the building code followed, taking his total term up to 16 years and 7 months.
He, and many others, are convinced that this is a political case, because jail time for building code infringements is almost unheard of in Turkey. He believes the authorities have prosecuted him for these crimes because they do not want his case to cause an international stir.
“Jailing a non-Muslim, an Armenian at that, for speaking rather mildly against Islamic sensibilities… would be a first in the history of the Republic,” he told Index. “It might raise eye- brows both here and abroad.”
Despite everything, Nişanyan is adamant that his time has not been wasted. He has been working on the third edition of his Etymological Dictionary of the Turkish Language, which presently stands at over 1500 pages.
On entering prison, he signed away most of his property, including the copyright to his books, to the Nesin Foundation which runs the mathematics village he is so passionate about. Today the village has added a school of theatre. A philosophy village is the next project in the works.
“The idea is, of course, to develop all this into a sort of free and independent university,” he said. “I am sure the young people who have come together in Şirince for this quirky little utopia will have the energy and determination to go on in my absence.”
"Index of Censorship," Winter 2016