Armenian intellectual and entrepreneur Sevan Nisanyan, 60, could spend the next 25 years in a Turkish prison as punishment for a long list of charges relating to construction violations stacked against him. As a journalist and a critic of government policies, Nisanyan has been too loud and too bold for an Armenian in Turkey. His friends have launched petitions calling on the Turkish authorities to at least allow him his intellectual pursuits.
Held at a high-security prison, Nisanyan—recipient of the 2004 Freedom of Thought Award from Turkey’s Human Rights Association—has been effectively silenced. For a man who thrives on writing, prodding, and researching, his current situation must be suffocating. Aside from writing commentaries in various newspapers, Nisanyan, a graduate of Columbia and Yale, has also published a series of best-selling guidebooks to small hotels in Turkey, an online toponymic index, as well as research on the old and new place names in Turkey. A friend of his, Isin Onol, alerted the Armenian Weekly about his condition.
“We started a petition for him… We don’t think it will really help him gain back his freedom, but it might help make his condition better, to be able to continue his intellectual activities until he is free again,” she wrote. In less than 24 hours, the petition garnered around 4,000 signatures.
Initially serving two years at a low-security prison where he could still devour books—and where he was even enthusiastic about enriching the prison’s scrawny library—Nisanyan is currently condemned to a life of intellectual deprivation in a high-security prison. The charges that have him locked up for at least 16 years stem from the renovations and additions to his hotels in Sirince, an old Greek village in Izmir that has become a tourist destination thanks to Nisanyan and his rustic hotel business. Additional charges could add another nine years to his prison term. Nisanyan may not be eligible for parole until 2024.
Although appearing to be a direct consequence of his construction activities, the charges have served another crucial purpose: They have muzzled a man who has been unreservedly critical of state policies, the assault on freedom of speech, and the state-imposed amnesia vis-à-vis the Armenian Genocide.
But, never mind all that. His real crimes are graver: The charges brought against him include illegally building a three-foot-wide stone arch over the door of his chicken coop… (Yes, you read that right.)
“Nisanyan is currently the only person in Turkey who is actually in jail under Law 2863, art. 65, which governs ‘unlicensed construction in a historical heritage site’ and this, in a country where over half of all construction is estimated to be illegal, and the presidential palace, completed in 2014, was itself built without license on a listed heritage site in defiance of a court injunction,” according to information on his personal website.
Nisanyan once told the Weekly that at least 90 building constructions were illegal in Sirince, which was declared a historic site in 1984. Authorities were required to produce a new zoning plan within a year to allow legal constructions. They failed to do so until 23 years later. In the meantime, it was impossible not to engage in construction, according to Nisanyan. Still, he and his team of builders pulled apart ruined houses and studied the work of earlier builders. It was a way for him to understand early building traditions, which he summarized in a manual he prepared for others in Sirince.
In 2011, Nisanyan donated his hotel-houses to the Nesin Foundation, which aims to bring educational opportunities to children from poverty stricken families.
Speaking about his hotels and the lawsuits against him, Nisanyan once told the Weekly: “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.”
“The Armenian who openly defies the Turkish state is something they cannot tolerate,” he added.
His defiance reached new heights in 2013, when he criticized a proposed “hate crime” bill following the release of “The Innocence of Muslims,” a film demeaning Prophet Muhammad, saying that the bill was an assault on freedom of expression. “It is an almost kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression,” he wrote in a blog post. A few months later, an Istanbul court sentenced him to 13 months in jail for “publicly insulting the religious values of part of the population.” The case has since been resting with the Court of Appeals.
‘The Armenian who openly defies the Turkish state is something they cannot tolerate.’
Nisanyan is convinced the jail term is the price he is paying for his “impertinence.” The homepage on his website stresses: “For anyone familiar with the workings of the Turkish legal system, it is obvious that the construction charges are a smokescreen, and Nisanyan is [being] punished for his political and religious impertinence, made graver by the fact that he is an ethnic Armenian.”
The truth is, Nisanyan simply could not live within the boundaries set for him—especially the boundaries drawn for an Armenian. And now, he is paying a hefty price for it…
To sign the petition, visit https://www.change.org/p/free-sevan-nisanyan.