How to Silence an Armenian Maverick in Turkey

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.” 

Clutching a pillow in one hand, and two duffle bags in the other, he walked in to prison on Jan. 2.
Clutching a pillow in one hand, and two duffle bags in the other, he walked in to prison on Jan. 2.

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.

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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  1. When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Henry David Thoreau in prison in Concord, Massachusetts, Emerson asked Thoreau, “What are you doing in there?”

    Thoreau’s answer: “What are you doing out there?”

    Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (1849)

  2. “A cottage without a permit”. This phrase describes just about every house built in urban areas from the 70s to 90s. Guess we really are a country of criminals after all.

  3. All I hope that Turkish Midnight Express jail Colonel won’t mix this “political” prisoner with the rest of Muslim pedophiles and rapists, inmates, especially if the person is a Christian and from an Armenian descent…best of luck to you Mr. Nishanian, and may “Allah” be with your side!!

  4. Turks should get used to having Armenians among themselves who not only dare to talk about Genocide, but also criticize the whole system as equal citizens. I would say power to the likes of Nisanyan.

  5. Ah, birader Sevan, he is put on this earth to stick it to the man, and he does it so well and with such flair! They have built cities without a plan or permit but his cottage is the problem?

  6. The Ottoman Empire has long since gone. However, the Turkish government’s mentality toward it’s peoples’ freedom of speech, views and opinions remains virtually unchanged. Turkish Penal code 301 is a prime example.

  7. A cottage without a permit, since when are illegal activities illegal in Turkey? Such a black humor in a country where the biggest fans of Allah are the signature bearers of various crimes, including the AKP of Erdogan. I wish you all the strength Mr. Nişanyan, please don’t let them break your spirit.

    • The biggest fans of Allah also seem to have to most euros and dollars stuffed into shoes boxes as well. Endless thanks to the judges and police who exposed them.

    • “And this is the country that wants to become a full member of the European Union!” No! This is a country who wants the Europe to be Turkish territory.
      You want to solve Armenian Question, you need top guns. I hope Armenians will gather in Armenia to develop top guns. One of these days, Armenia will be attacked by Turks from left and right. We have to create our own defense system in order to survive. Relying on Russia is false hope.

  8. Bless this man for his ongoing courage, up against a hard core corrupt government. Please let us pray for his safety and sanity while imprisoned.

  9. Proof, if one was needed, that Turkey is a “mildly Islamic ‘DEMOCRACY'” and a heaven for minorities such as Armenians!!!!!
    Ironic that almost seven years after the murder of Hrant Dink, nothing has changed in Turkey as far as European democratic values are concerned. “Republican” authoritarianism is being replaced by an equally bad Islamic one.

  10. No one is above the law. If he breaks the law, he goes to prison, like any other Turk in Turkey. However, this man has many times insulted Prophet Muhammed and Islam, provoking Muslims in Turkey. Let a Turk insult Christianity in armenia and see what happens to him. So get your manners straight.

    • You know nothing.

      A true democratic country, which Turkey claims to be, allows free speech and freedom of religion.

      However, anytime the truth of Turkey’s filthy past (aka the Armenian genocide, as a single example) is spoken of, the person is either murdered like Hrant Dink, threatened like Ragip Zarakolu and Orhan Pamuk, or jailed like Sevan Nisanian.

      For your information, unlike your Turk grandparents who have stolen thousands of years old Armenian churches and turned them into homes for cows and sheep, Armenia has built Islamic mosques for any of the muslim Kurds and Iranians who live freely in Armenia and freely practice Islam in Armenia, where they can and DO speak freely regarding religion as they choose.

      Go chew on that.

  11. Dear Sevan Nisanian,
    God bless you, your Dear family, your patriarchal family and your holy mission for the human rights.
    “Justice never dies, get sick than recovers”.
    Baruyr Sevag

  12. Its funny when Turks come up to me and say, the Armenians living in Turkey are very happy, some are close friends and they sometimes reach great heights in Turkish society, well of course, as long as they keep their mouths shut about the Armenian Genocide, the government lets them be, but when brave people like Nisanyan come up and talk openly about such a matter, the authorities will abuse of the Article 301 and bring them down. What hypocrisy!

  13. I thought for sure this article would be about another Armenian journalist being murdered in Turkey. Putting Armenians in jail seems to be the “nice” way to deal with them by Turkish standards.

  14. MEHMET and the other Turk that commented,
    The Armenians in Armenia and in Turkey are not the same people. Did you ever ask how the Ottomans built such a big empire? All of the Turkish customs that are 1000 years old, where did they come from? Did they bring them from Momgolia ?
    The modern Turk is a combination of all the lands and people the Ottomsns conquered,
    And it got the most influence from the Armenians, Look at your “sanat muzigi” see where it came from.

    Nishanyan is not a foreigner and neither am I, he has the right to Have an opinion that is not like yours or your goverment and he is brave,

    Your governments system has and will continue to push out of our lands, smart hard working people and we have and will continue to go to other countries and build a life there, because we are builders and your system will fail, because if is not yours, your foundations are not yours. You attack people like Nishanyan because your afraid of the truth.
    Look how much has changed in 30 years.
    I couldn’t use the word “mom” in public, but now you are afraid of one person that built a hotel.
    You cannot hide from the truth. The longer you wait. The more painful it will be

    • Nuri,

      You said,

      “Armenians in Armenia and in Turkey are not the same people”

      Are you from Turkish foreign ministry??

      Armenians are the same people around the world!!You have no rights to make division between Armenians!!Our Western part stolen and Eastern part had no other choice but to fight against “mighty” Ottoman invading army in Sardarabad war!! We have one country and one flag, and that is included Western part occupied by Turks!!

  15. Please enough with poor oppressed Armenian sop stories. He is a Turkish maverick. He has been since little kid, I know! Period. Has little to do with his ethnicity and religion (he is a devout atheist). He is no more or less privileged than any other Turkish intellectual. Others do it too is a poor defense and he darn well knew what he was doing.

    • @Ahmet, want to learn about true Islam? I know about it and I will teach you now. As a muslim, convert to another belief, or just abandon your Sunni sect : Your punishment as a “Murdet” is Death Penalty. You do not really have to insult or criticize Islam or its prophet- Just ignore it- and you deserve your neck to be chopped off. Do not blame Christians by their barbaric values. Your religion is Theoretically a more violent religion (which of course does not mean all muslims are aware of this and apply this barbaric rule). And as a Turk, I believe that we killed/deported/massacared Armenians, merely, because they were not muslim. This is a Fact! A fact of religion.. A means of discriminating others from you.. A reason to kill them, and have their food/home/wives… Anybody will deny?

  16. Dear Armenians
    You got it wrong again by claiming that nisanyan is behind bars because he is Armenian.The truth tells us something else.He has broken the building regulation more than a dozen times in a historical area where the permits are extremely limited.if you break the building regulation one or two times you may get away with it or end up paying penalties but if anyone including nisanyan break this rule more than dozen have got no chances to escape.the question is why he did this? I have read his interview in turkish but couldnt understand the reason.he says that the authorities really tried their best to reduce the more thing people dont want him to leave the country as he has thousand of fans

  17. I stayed at Nisanyan’s Village cottage house couple of times. All those houses are beautifully renovated to its original look. I was under the impression that authorities would give him some sort of an award for his accomplishment. It is sad to hear that he was sent to the prison instead.
    We live close to that prison. We will certainly go there to encourage him and meet his needs.

  18. The Armenians should leave Turkey for good and let them handlle their “conquered” country. They seem to be more in the past than in the future. We have a chance do not suffer from an “emperial” nostalgia. Anyway we are too small and insignificant to be on cover pages. The media do not care for the lives of the Armenians, neither their cultural heritage. This would continue until we take care of us on our own. Remember one thing, if you do not care for your country, for your culture, food, music, all of the heritage… Why would others care for it!!! Wake up, I don’t care for Turkey. They’re doing fine! What matters for me is Armenia. It, present day and the future. The rest is irrelevant ;)

    • Hrant Dink’s words_ Armenians are suffering from trauma, while Turks are suffering from paranoia. Explanation: Turks are afraid of remembering their history, while Armenians are afraid of forgetting theirs. While most Turks are doing everything they can to complete the rewriting of history started by Mustafa Kemal and put subjects like the Armenian Genocide to bed, Armenians are doing everything they can to help the Turkish people to come to terms with reality.

  19. Ahmed oghloo,
    You should have started your sentence as:

    “Nobody is above penal code 301 in Turkey”

    Can you tell us what is below or above the law in Turkieyeh. Your Islamist Erdogan is the most corrupted individual in Turkey, even penal code 301 does not apply to him, but for people, who are not denialist, or brainwashed racist, or Muslim Turk…this law apply to Turkish intellectuals and Turkey’s indigenous people, where corrupted authorities, have all the rights and choices, thrown them into Midnight Express fancy jail houses!!

  20. the wall street journal spoke out strongly about erdogan badmouthing Israel but remains silent again concerning this! meanwhile turkey gets bolder and more arrogant over and over.I guess losing most of its empire after WW1 wasn,t enough . keep it up erdogan and lose some more of your illegal land holdings!

  21. How many Turkish journalists in Armenia?, if a Turk speaks out in Armenia what will happen to them?, before Armenians criticize Turkey they should look at themselves first! and I wan’t a answer to those questions as well, if you can answer them of course?

    • Armenian Genocide (Christian Genocide) happened in our occupied Western Armenia, authorized by Young Turks, CUP leaders. Turkish Gendarmes and Kurdish gangs wipe entire indigenous people of Western Armenia, where today Turks proudly called “Anatolia” in sweet Turkish language!! Those murderers and criminals supposed to be prosecuted by Ataturk leadership, instead he let them go free, based on Turkish penal code 301…today Jihadist Turks calling Christian Genocide was part of on going “halal killing” of infidels!

      Armenia is free enough to talk about truth of Genocide and all denialists opinion in our Armenian newspapers, and nobody goes to jail…and we don’t need a “right” Turkish journalist in Yerevan, who may end up in a Turkish jail like Mr. Nishanian!

  22. RVDV

    And, I wonder, when corrupted Turkish police and judges will expose
    Allah’s servant Mr. Rajab Erdogan with his billions hanging inside his underwear!

    • That’s the thing though. These were HIS men that were exposed. Which is why Erdogan removed the judges and prosecutors from office the same night.

  23. I am an Armenian and I believe that it is true that any low if broken they have to be penelise ,but I have lived in turkey for 1,5 years and I was a refugee from Iran and I so the life they cherish and that was not happy for self Turks either as their government are so corrupt and poor in public sector that even Turks get this kind of treatment too ! but see , Armenia is just 25 years independent and they cant do such act neither and all is controlled sistematicaly but with assurance to allow growth in every part of the country but Turkey had this last 100 years to figure that out that they can not live without authorities get paid enough from a someone that easely can be put in gaol and get his asset and mark him that he insulted religion and prove that they will always be muslims of Allah but they kill and plunder always in Allahs name is OK because its allowed ,,, so why these so called muslems trying to be part of a Christian europian society and not their own muslim neighbour country ? are they so shame of being part of muslim union?

  24. Everything about this article is correct, but there is a giant gap missing.. Sevan has the support of many people in Turkish society, including Turks, Kurds etc. Just like many people are engaging support for Hrant’s trial today. Please keep this in mind as you think about Turkey, it is never a monoblock – despite all struggles for it to be.

  25. Anyone who even remotely believes the ethnicity of the “accused” in Turkey has nothing to do with the punishment he receives is either naive, in denial or both. If the accused also happens to be of the wrong ethnic group, an Armenian in this case, he is guilty by default until proven innocent, unlike fair-minded and civilized societies in which the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The charges and judgments passed, if not always, are often manufactured and the punishment is disproportionate and severe. There are many reasons for this behavior, the least of which are discrimination and racism. The real reasons lie in the Turkish psyche and paranoia that a well-to-do and outspoken Armenian is a threat to Turkey and has to be controlled and crushed.

    On the surface, the Turkish government tries to act like a democracy and a fake one at that, but in reality it is closer to autocracy in which a group of people at the top determine what laws to enact to empower them and they fully dictate whatever course the country should take without any consent from the public. In a true democracy, there are checks and balances and the judiciary, i.e. the courts and the judges, exist to serve the public but in Turkey they exist to serve the government instead. A true testament to this fact and a prime example is that not only Turkey has the highest number of journalists in prison but its leaders can financially sue journalists for slander in Turkish courts which exist to serve them instead of defending the rights of the accused. Unfamiliar with the concept of democracy, the Turkish society itself is predominantly totalitarian and it primarily functions on ethno-religious divisions and based on bribes and nepotism.

    The minority groups, unlike the Turks themselves, are not free to do as they wish and express their thoughts without backlash. If they do so and their actions and thoughts are contrary to what the government fabricates, and falsely perpetuates amongst its brainwashed and gullible masses, and if it deems them “offensive”, rest-assured they will get their due punishment. If there are no laws on the books to punish them for their transgressions, they will be manufactured on the fly and enacted under some bogus name so as to arouse deeply-rooted anti-minority feelings among the Turkish public as a ploy to get them to fully embrace and support the bogus laws and unopposed. A prime example of this was the article 301 of the Turkish Criminal Code, better known as “insulting Turkishness” which was a scheme to silence Hrant Dink on the Armenian Genocide and secretly cause his death. The last time I checked there has never been any such law to punish “insulting Armenianness” or “insulting Kurdishness” for that matter, despite the fact that both ethnic groups have been harassed and insulted practically on daily basis. In fact, the Turkish masses have often been encouraged to do so publicly and with impunity. The recent anti-Armenian gatherings in Taksim square and hateful speech by the former Turkish Interior Minister Idris Naim Shahin is an example.

    There are many more examples. Given all these facts, are you really surprised that non-Turks, Armenians in particular, get such bogus and harsh punishments they don’t deserve? If you are still not convinced and think I am biased then I will add the following: As long as the Armenian provinces remain under Turkish occupation and as long as the mass extermination and the forced expulsion of 10% of 30 million Ottoman Armenian population is not acknowledged and punished, the Armenians will be discriminated against and viewed with suspicion and considered guilty by default and that is because the only way for the Turks to view the Armenians as equals is when they totally erase the Turkish criminal past from their memories. We will never let that happen of course.

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