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Turkish-Armenian blogger sentenced to Turkish prison for blasphemy

By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz, CNN
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu May 23, 2013
Turkish journalists protest by the Syrian Embassy in Ankara on August 31, to demand the release of two Turkish reporters.
Turkish journalists protest by the Syrian Embassy in Ankara on August 31, to demand the release of two Turkish reporters.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sevan Nisanyan accuses Turkey's government of politically persecuting him
  • His crime: "openly denigrating the religious values held by a certain portion of the population."
  • He says he has been prosecuted simultaneously in three Turkish courts
  • Nisanyan told CNN he recognizes he was deliberately confrontational in court

Istanbul (CNN) -- A Turkish-Armenian blogger vowed to appeal a day after an Istanbul court sentenced him to more than a year in prison for blasphemy.

In a phone interview with CNN, Sevan Nisanyan accused Turkey's Islamic-rooted government of politically persecuting him.

"When I attacked the Islamist establishment they felt I overstepped my boundaries," said Nisanyan, who is a member of Turkey's tiny Armenian ethnic minority. "Here I am an Armenian doing something no Armenian has done in a Muslim country. This is really the height of boldness, of impudence. This is something you are not supposed to do."

Read more: Group: Number of jailed journalists worldwide reaches record high

According to Turkey's semi-official Anatolian Agency, Nisanyan received a one year and 45-day jail sentence for "openly denigrating the religious values held by a certain portion of the population."

Anatolian reported that Nisanyan's initial nine-month jail sentence was extended because "the crime was committed through the press."

Turkey is a majority Muslim country.

Nisanyan said the court cited a passage in his blog published last September that referred to the international uproar triggered by cheaply made Hollywood film called the "Innocence of Muslims." The film, which ridiculed the most revered figure in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed, sparked violent protests in Egypt and Libya. The Turkish prime minister also denounced the movie as "Islamophobic," though protests on Turkish streets were small and peaceful.

On Wednesday, Nisanyan published an English translation of the passage in question from his September 2012 blog post:

"It is not 'hate crime' to poke fun at some Arab leader who, many hundred years ago, claimed to have established contact with Deity and made political, economic and sexual profit as a result. It is almost a kindergarten-level case of what we call freedom of expression," Nisanyan wrote.

Since the blog was published last year, Nisanyan said, prosecutors have taken him to court simultaneously for this passage in three separate courts across Turkey.

Nisanyan said he represented himself at the criminal court in Istanbul, without the help of an attorney. He acknowledged that he took a confrontational approach in his statement to the court, arguing that no one should be prosecuted for discussing the historical background of a religious figure.

CNN Blog: Erdogan's troubling shift toward repression

"In consequence of his claim to have established contact with Deity, this Muhammed, who was a lowly merchant, acquired political dominion over all Arabian and gained the financial means to raise 30-thousand-strong armies," Nisanyan wrote, citing his statement to the court.

"It is an incontrovertible historical fact that this person made political, economic and sexual profit from his alleged contact with Deity."

In his interview with CNN, Nisanyan recognized that he was deliberately throwing fuel on the fire regarding his conviction.

"I'm hoping to contribute to the ongoing debate in this country on freedom of expression and freedom of religion," Nisanyan said. "I think I'm performing a useful public service."

This is not the first time people have been convicted of insulting Islam in Turkey.

Last month Fazil Say, Turkey's most famous classical pianist, received a 10-month suspended jail sentence for insulting Islamic values in a series of statements disseminated on Twitter.

International press freedom organizations have slammed Turkey in previous years for having more journalists in prison than any other country.

On April 30, the human rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a new package of legislation sponsored by the Turkish government.

"Amnesty International believes the reform package will allow abusive prosecutions to continue, forcing still more political activists, journalists and human rights defenders to face jail sentences for carrying out their work," Amnesty wrote.

According to Anatolian, the judge in Istanbul ruled "not to postpone the punishment" for Nisanyan because he has a record of prior convictions.

Nisanyan served 11 months in prison a decade ago for committing building violations in the touristic Turkish village of Sirince, where he owned and operated a hotel.

Prior to becoming an outspoken political blogger and newspaper columnist, Nisanyan was a prominent travel writer and hotelier who promoted the boutique hotel and bed-and-breakfast industry in Turkey.

He said he is currently appealing a dozen convictions with sentences that add up to 20 years in jail.

During his previous prison term, Nisanyan wrote and published a dictionary of Turkish etymology, a study of the history of words.

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