They finally locked him up. It was only a matter of time, really. And frankly, I’m surprised it took them this long. The Turkish-Armenian journalist and entrepreneur Sevan Nisanyan could not accept his place in Turkish society. And a “good” Armenian ought to know better than that. Somehow, Nisanyan always made headlines—from television talk shows to controversial blog posts. He’s been practically swimming in some two-dozen court cases—but Nisanyan is built differently than many of us. In fact, he actually enjoys making waves. You might say he was born in the wrong country, but if you were to ask him, he’d tell you—as he once told me—“I feel perfectly at home in a country where most people would rather see me go. A paradox? I don’t think so. I like the precariousness of my situation. I think I contribute a lot to the society I live in.”
Two years, that’s how long Nisanyan will spend in a Turkish prison—an early Christmas present from the Turkish courts. Clutching a pillow in one hand, and two duffle bags in the other, he walked in to prison on Jan. 2. This was the punishment dished out from one of a long list of court cases piled against him that could amount to over 50 years in jail.
This time, they said, the 57-year-old Nisanyan had gone too far building a cottage without a permit on his property in the village of Sirince in Izmir, a tourist destination he’s credited with reviving through his rustic hotel business. A cottage without a permit, in a land of illegal constructions, in a country where the President sits in a mansion confiscated from its Armenian subjects. Chew on that, Armenian!
This is a country where laws work for rulers—laws that were crafted to weed out the other, to sanction looting, gagging, chaining, and even killing.
Even at the prison gates, Nisanyan was still defiant. Still controversial. Still hopeful. “Unfortunately, Turkey is being governed by people who have no horizons, no vision, no quality; by small minded people [‘dwarves’ in literal translation],” he said to reporters gathered there. “It is a pity for this country. All of us, all of you, deserve better. We hope that one day, people with vision, people who can tell the good from the bad, will also be able to govern.”
As to his hotel-houses in Sirince, Nisanyan donated them to the Nesin Foundation in 2011. The foundation, located in Sirince, brings educational opportunities to children from financially handicapped families.
Despite the numerous court cases that at times saw him appearing before a judge as often as twice a week, Nisanyan managed to publish his research on the old and new names of places in Turkey, as well as an online toponymic index. This, in addition to his bestselling guidebook to small hotels in Turkey.
Just over a year ago, Nisanyan, a graduate of Yale and Columbia, angered thousands through a blog post defending freedom of speech. It was a response to proposed “hate crime” bills following the release of “The Innocence of Muslims,” a film denigrating the Prophet Muhammad.
“Mocking an Arab leader who centuries ago claimed to have contacted God and made political, financial, and sexual benefits out of this is not a crime of hatred. It is an almost kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression,” Nisanyan wrote in his post.
A few months later, an Istanbul court found Nisanyan—a recipient of the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award by the Human Rights Association of Turkey—guilty and sentenced him to over 13 months in jail. His crime? “Publicly insulting the religious values of part of the population.”
When I asked him about it a few days later, his response was, “I don’t believe anyone has ever been prosecuted in Turkey for advocating the murder, mayhem, or massacre of Armenians, Jews, Kurds, atheists, gays, or liberals. Thousands, on the other hand, were prosecuted and convicted in the past for ‘insulting Turkishness’ under the notorious Article 301 of the penal code. Now, ‘insulting Islam’ seems to be replacing that old juggernaut as a favorite instrument to hit dissidents with.”
In 2010, Nisanyan’s comments about the Armenian Genocide aired during a Turkish television debate program resulted in the punishment of the TV station. Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) declared that Nisanyan’s comments “humiliated the Republic of Turkey.”
Turkey’s human rights record—especially when it comes to journalists—is dismal. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders dubbed Turkey “The World’s Biggest Prison for Journalists.” In fact, the country is the leading jailer of journalists—ahead of China and Iran.
Nisanyan’s imprisonment further confirms what he has been communicating all along: “There is instinctive hostility toward an Armenian. It turns rabid when that Armenian is also an outspoken critic of the Turkish system.”
At the doorstep of the Armenian Genocide centennial, Nisanyan’s imprisonment is but a chapter in the fate of Turkey’s Armenians. “I believe this is a test case for the Erdogan government’s willingness to improve minority rights in Turkey,” he had told me in 2010, when a Turkish court ordered the demolition of his houses. “I believe it is also a test case that will show if Armenians can go on living freely and securely in this country, or whether the old system of state thuggery will go on unchanged.”
Ultimately, when a restless maverick like Nisanyan goes to jail, the whole of society suffers. It leaves Turkey with one less dissenting voice; one less dreamer capable of hoping for a democratic Turkey; and one more nail that binds modern Turkey to its xenophobic legacy.