Turkish Armenian Entrepreneur, Writer Could Be Imprisoned ‘Any Time Now’
Sevan Nisanyan, the owner of Nisanyan Hotels, was given a 3.5-year prison sentence by Turkey’s Western Seljuk District’s criminal court for the illegal construction of his hotels, located in Sirince, Izmir. Nisanyan, a linguist, columnist, academic, and outspoken critic, still faces more than a dozen other cases stemming from construction work he has done on his hotels.
“I have been fighting this nonsense almost full-time for the last year and a half. There are now 16 criminal cases against me running simultaneously, so I have to face the prosecutor or attend court, on the average, twice a week,” Nisanyan told the Armenian Weekly, after the court ruled against him on March 8.
The cases are mainly concerned with illegal construction—building without a permit. Other charges, such as resisting authority and contempt for the court, were also added. “One charge concerns building a stone arch—about three-feet wide—over the door of our chicken coop,” he said.
Nisanyan moved to Sirince in the mid 90’s. He gradually purchased 22 historic Greek houses and turned them into the Nisanyan Hotels. Many of the houses were in ruin and in dire need of repair. Nisanyan used traditional methods of building to renovate them, careful to preserve the authentic charm of the area. Widely considered a model of reviving traditional rural architecture, his investment energized the little village with a limping agriculture and turned it into a booming tourist spot.
“The government bureaucracy, meanwhile, is in fury because I have done all this without their permission—which was not forthcoming anyway—and without regard to due form,” he said.
So far there have been nine court verdicts, which add up to about 16 years of prison. “Each one of the verdicts is involved in a long and costly appeals process.”
Almost all court verdicts are appealed in Turkey, and the final deliberation rests with a higher court.
“I have time to appeal, though there are several other appeals pending and I expect a rejection—and consequent jail time—any time now,” he said.
As for the houses, Nisanyan donated them to the Nesin Foundation in February 2011, an organization he has cooperated with in the past. The foundation, which is headed by mathematics Professor Ali Nesin and located in Sirince, works towards providing educational opportunities to children from economically handicapped homes.
Aside from the 3.5-year sentence, Nisanyan was fined 160 liras and lost many political rights, including his election license, the right to work for a public institution, or to manage a foundation, a company, a club, or any other organized group, report Turkish sources.
Around the time Nisanyan donated his houses, he narrowly evaded a demolition order. Still the threat looms. “The immediate threat of demolition has passed since the minister of culture and tourism has made a personal intervention. Though I expect this means simply another prolongation of the bureaucratic mess.”
Last September, Nisanyan told the Weekly he planned to appeal with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). “I still plan to take this to ECHR, though I haven’t had a couple of days of peace to plan the case with my lawyers,” he said in his latest statements.
According to Nisanyan, there are at least 90 illegal building constructions in the village. In 1984, Sirince was declared a historic site, banning constructions and renovations. By law, authorities had to produce a new zoning plan within a year. However, according to Nisanyan, it took authorities 23 years to produce the plan, making it impossible to build or renovate legally in the village.
The new zoning plan is a disaster, according to Nisanyan. The basic mathematical proportions of the traditional constructions are ignored; and while the traditional village houses were made of stone and timber, the new plan allows the use of cement and permits 250 new houses in the village.
Prior to engaging in construction projects, Nisanyan and his builders pulled apart ruined houses to study the materials, modes of construction, and intricacies of the earlier builders. He later published the information in a booklet as a guidebook for builders in Sirince.
“As far as I know, this is the first—and I think only—commercial establishment in the history of the Turkish Republic that carries an openly Armenian name,” he told the Weekly in September, adding, “The Armenian who openly defies the Turkish state is something they cannot tolerate.”
Nisanyan, who was awarded the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by the Human Rights Association of Turkey, has often voiced views that are controversial in the tightly censored Turkish society. He has spoken publicly about the Armenian Genocide, winning him more than a few enemies. Last year, his comments made during a Turkish television debate program, resulted in the punishment of the airing station by Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK), who claimed Nisanyan’s comments were excessively critical and that they “humiliated the Republic of Turkey.”