Blasphemy Conviction of Pianist Fazil Say Draws Sharp Reactions

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The conviction of the pianist and composer Fazil Say for blasphemy over a series of Twitter messages has drawn outrage from human rights campaigners and many international media outlets.

On Monday, Say was slapped with a 10-month jail sentence on a five-year suspended basis, meaning he won't be sent to jail unless he convicted of another offense during the next five years.

The case stemmed from a series of nine Twitter messages the 43-year-old pianist sent out last April, including a retweet of an 11th-century poem that satirized the Islamic afterlife and another message that mocked a local muezzin, the person tasked with making the daily calls to prayer at mosques.

The Istanbul prosecutor's office filed the charges in October, claiming Say's Twitter comments violated a Turkish law forbidding the incitement of hatred towards another religious, social or ethnic group. Say, who is a guest soloist with international orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, argued that the charges were politically motivated.

Say’s case has stirred up passions about the role of religion in Turkish politics, particularly since Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party, which has roots in Islamist politics, swept to power a decade ago.

While the Turkish media was divided over the ruling, English-language columnists were sharp in their condemnation. Murat Yetkin in the Hurriyet Daily News wrote that the case against Say was the latest in a string of convictions against Turkish artists and intellectuals on charges related to religion or terrorism. "Not something to be proud of, for sure,” he concluded.

In Today’s Zaman, the columnist Yavuz Baydar writes: “No doubt, it will have a long-lasting, venomous effect on perceptions of where Turkey is heading, and what there is to do with its deeply rooted ‘culture of intolerance’ that has defined its past as well as the present.” Baydar took particular issue with the interpretation of the new Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which contains a provision to combat hate speech.

Amnesty International also weighed in on the decision. "The conviction of Fazil Say is a flagrant violation of his freedom of expression, made possible by one of Turkey's most draconian laws," said Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s expert on Turkey. "This case sends a chilling warning to anyone using Twitter or other social media in Turkey. Namely, that if you express an opinion the authorities don't like, you could be next."

The European Union, which Turkey wants to join, voiced concern about the sentence. A spokeswoman for the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said the verdict "underlines the importance for Turkey to fully respect freedom of expression."

Say has not made any decision yet on whether to appeal the decision. He has previously said that if convicted, he may leave the country.