In Defense of Turkey’s Imprisoned Armenian Maverick

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.

Armenian intellectual and entrepreneur Sevan Nisanyan, 60, could spend the next 25 years in a Turkish prison...
Armenian intellectual and entrepreneur Sevan Nisanyan, 60, could spend the next 25 years in a Turkish prison…

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


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. Why Armenians are still in Turkey? they should’ve planned their gradual departure from that crime-filled country, there’s no hope in staying there. We have heard so many sad stories like this and I always wonder “when will Armenians there understand that it’s time to leave…”

  2. The diaspora Armenians and the Catholicosate should hire lawyers to defend this person and all other Armenians who will be in a similar situation.
    What is being done in this case, has any Armenian organization or political party moving a finger or just organizing events to collect money for their pockets??!
    As long as Armenians are not organized, Turks will have a green cart to do whatever they like and nobody will stop them.

  3. Goodness, gracious. If one were to apply the same legal principles to the infamous Erdogan posse related to illegal building and expropriation of heritage land, the prison term would be life times at least five . . . . Keep up the pressure. Most intellectuals in Turkish prisons should not be there.

  4. Nishanyan’s online toponymic index “Index Anatolicus” ( is an important resource for those many Armenians, who wish to locate their ancestors’ native towns and villages which have been Turkified by the successive Turkish governments starting in the 1920s. With a little patience, trying various possible transliterations in English for a town or village Armenian name, it is possible to locate it and to learn what Turkified name it now bears. Nishanyan has done a meticulous, rewarding work.

    • Thank you for pointing out that site.

      I believe those Turkification projects usually referred to the Armenian and other non-Turkish original names as “foreign names”. Just goes to show the how deep the psychology of animosity goes. People who lived there before you are “foreigners”?

  5. United States punishes every other militant undemocratic country. Time for the US, Germany, England, and other countries to take on Turkey. Time for Turkey to be kicked out of NATO, where it never belonged betroying the West, and time for the West not be subjected to constant Turkish bullying.

    • “United States punishes every other militant undemocratic country.”

      That’s not even a little bit true. And Turkey will remain in NATO so long as it serves its purpose as NATO/US yes-man in the middle east. Get over it.

  6. Dear Nanore and American Weekly,
    Thank you for the article about Nishanyan. I am waiting for a documentarian to tell the story of 100 years of abysmal treatment of minorities by successive governments in Turkey. This is after the Genocide.
    Garbis Benlian was a shoemaker in Istanbul who owned a tiny shop. On November 12, 1942, the draconian wealth tax known as VARLIK VERGISI was passed by the government in Turkey.
    1) Tax assessments arrived in secret.
    2) Individuals were directed to settle their government assessed liabilities within two weeks without any appeal provisions in place.
    3) The penalty for Christians and Jews who failed to do so within a month was deportation to forced labor camps in eastern Turkey in addition to having their property confiscated.
    Garbis was deported and his shoe repair business confiscated. He was gone for years. His granddaughter and my friend, Armenuhi always thought that her grandfather had abandoned the family. Garbis’s wife died and his daughter Siran was cared for by relatives in Istanbul. She was in Istanbul, in 1955 when the government sanctioned destruction of the Greek community took place which also targeted Armenians and Jewish citizens.
    I’m waiting for someone to make a documentary film.
    Ellen Sarkisian Chesnut

  7. I have got sympathy for Sevan Nisanyan as I was a regular reader of his website.But he knew what he was doing and possible consequences that’s why I do not understand the motivation he had. It is extremely unlikely that someone will builds a construction on a historical sites and won’t receive a prison sentences. He could have avoided this unnecessary prison term but he is a special man so deserve to be free

    • So, based on the Turkish “logic” of someone posting under a ridiculous pen name “John the turk”, members of Erdogan’s ruling circle who were complicit in illegal building and expropriation of heritage land must also receive prison sentences? Yes? Or in Turkey the law only applies to the Armenians?

    • The issue is the nature of the prison term itself. High security prison for 16 years? He’s being targeted.

    • JtT,

      Here’s a very nice article from Today’s Zaman on Nisanyan. I don’t know how long it will be up since the government has taken it over:

      Some choice quotes from the article:

      “Being Armenian, atheist, anti-nationalist, anti-Kemalist and a contrarian is too much for Turkey.”

      ” For this construction he has been sentenced to two years in prison. In total, he was “handed a cumulative jail sentence of 16 years and 7 months after he made the fatal mistake of using mocking language about Islam in a blog entry in September 2012. He has been held in a maximum-security Turkish prison since January 2, 2014. He will not be eligible for parole until 2024.”

  8. Nothing new here..turks being turks, who cannot bear to be criticized, because they know they are wrong..


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