Armeno-Turkish platform

Viewpoints from Turkey, Armenia and the Diaspora
Full translations into Turkish, Armenian, English and French


The Unbearable Silence in the face of Sevan Nişanyan's Imprisonment


Standpoint of Turkey 

The unbearable silence in the face of Sevan Nişanyan's imprisonment

Sait Çetinoglu


Sait Çetinoglu

Turkish historian 

Sait Çetinoglu discusses the targeting of Sevan Nisanyan, imprisoned Armenian writer from Turkey, by the Turkish state. The process that started with his criticism of the Turkish republic in his book Wrong Republic continues up to his imprisonment due to “crime of unlicensed construction” of which he is the only convict. According to Çetinoglu, Sevan Nisanyan is no different from the Armenian intellectuals that were sent into uncertainty  one hundred years ago. The reason of the silence towards Nisanyan's situation in Turkey, abroad, in Armenia and in the diaspora, is the same as the reason for his imprisonment : that he is an outsider and an out of ordinary Armenian.

Our meeting with Sevan Nisanyan is new. It does not go as far back as school, neighborhood, work mates. Only recently have we come face to face. To the extent that; we arranged with Emrah Dönmez for the next day who was working on a documentary on Sevan. While leaving, he asked how long Sevan and I had known each other for. Upon hearing my answer "A few years, not for long", probably because he did not find anything significant about our friendship, the next day, even though we were in the same place and very close, he avoided speaking to me without giving any explanation.

Nevertheless, do not take into consideration the fact that our friendship is new, I recommend that you read the following writing.

This article is not a tribute to Sevan. While forming the skeleton of this article, my main concern was to evolve towards a kind of praise. Sevan is not in need of that. Yet, we find ourselves with such an extraordinary situation, such an extraordinary person that even though I bear that concern all throughout the process of writing this article with me, it seems to be a challenge to prevent it from evolving towards that direction.

As we said, we are talking about an extraordinary personality here: for someone who prepares as hard as he can to do the best of everything, when it comes to fighting, that too he does in an extraordinarily beautiful way. Also, understanding that for Sevan it matters not whether the object of fighting is a person or the government will facilitate the explanation and understanding of Sevan's current situation and “The Sevan Nisanyan Incident”.

In an article that describe Sevan very well, it says “In all times and societies there are those who are called ‘mad', who attempt to do works that we admire enviously. In fact, if there are no persons of this kind in a society it means that its spirit has died”. While we summarize Sevan clearly with these words, we also highlight another important necessity: Sevanlike persons should be necessary and indispensable for societies. Were it that we could increase the number of Sevanlike people in our society.

What we want to instill underneath it all is that the society at large is moving towards a deeply troublesome state: “On the other hand, societies adopt and encourage mediocrity. In this way, they protect themselves from the attraction and threat of the outsider. They watch those who stray, just like they watch those who are injured in an accident. Accidents trivialize persons and allow the event itself, the fabricated news to prevail. In a similar fashion, the odd one becomes visible to the society only ‘at the time of the accident’ and the lookers-on just look at the survivors and then continue with their lives as if nothing happened”.1

This is the very reason why what is happening today is being watched within the country and abroad silently. When we ask the question “What is the Sevan Nisanyan incident?” we see that there are more than one levels to it.

The first one is using the law to try to punish Sevan Nisanyan. As Bakunin’s famous quotation indicates: “Law is the prostitute of power”. The suing of Sevan to convict him took place after the publication of his book Wrong Republic, in which he criticized on many different points the founding of the republic.  In his article “We must fight against hate crimes” there is a three line section saying “It is not a hate crime to make fun of an Arab leader who hundreds of years ago claimed that he made contact with God and obtained political, financial and sexual privileges as a result of this. This is simply a test example on the primary school level of that thing we call ‘freedom of speech”  and because of these ideas Sevan was convicted, his court decisions waiting in the high court were approved. After his article “Every prime minister will taste resignation” which he wrote in the course of Gezi Park Events, it was pedantically said, “Every mortal will taste the prison house!”, his imprisonment procedure was brought to a closure and on 02.01.2014 he was put into prison to execute the punishment of which he was convicted.

In the Prophet Case, he was convicted by the 14. Criminal Court of Peace with the notice of 14 people from Trabzon to Istanbul, from Ordu to Antalya in an organized manner. As is known, Criminal Courts of Peace have been changed into private courts. 

The justified court decision is exemplary in being not only interesting but also provocative and bearing expressions targeting Armenians: " was decided by the court that this person insulted the people of this country by referring to the prophet to whom the majority of this country’s population believes, in a way that is degrading and humiliating, deliberately and with the intent to anger, provoke and insult the religious feelings of the people, and as is seen in the defense speech of the defendant, he used language that was not acceptable in the context of respectable  communication and freedom of expression and in a rude manner, in order to openly aggravate the religious feelings of the people, by targeting the people of THE NATION TO WHICH HE HIMSELF BELONGS, therefore the actual intention of the defendant is not to express his ideas but instead to provoke the people by USING A NUMBER OF WORD AND SENTENCE STRUCTURES and his real intention is not to criticize Islam and its prophet but to CREATE THE GROUNDS FOR A CONFLICTS IN THE NATION."

It would not be exaggerated to say that with the language it uses, this justified decision, that is of the same characteristics with a nationalistic party declaration, leaves even the inquisition behind and points to assault and to a pogrom even further than that.

As we said above, one of the milestones that caused a sharp attitude towards Sevan to be taken is the publication of his book Wrond Republic. Sevan Nisanyan revealed the character of the regime with this work and thus destroyed its foundation and the foundational principle. Criticism towards the founding fathers, especially coming from an outsider Armenian writer, was not taken well. Immediately an operation led by The General Staff was planned. With the private information serviced to a reporter -who today is also a victim- an event that happened many years ago was shown as if it all happened today by pressing a button, in an effort to defame Sevan. In this way, they tried to prevent people from reading the book Wrong Republic, in an effort to distract them from the truth.

Secondly, Sevan Nisanyan Incident, is not a matter of unlicensed construction. Turkey is an unlicensed construction heaven. Because of this crime no one’s punishment was executed except Sevan. Sevan Nisanyan Incident was also carried to TBMM by parliament members from HDP and CHP in order to request an explanation from the Minister of Justice. No answers were given to the questions in the parliamentary question given by CHP Istanbul Deputy Selina Dogan to TBMM in July 2015:

1- How many people were prosecuted in relation to The Culture and Nature Properties Law no 2863 article 65/b and how many people were convicted as a result?

2- How many people’s prison sentence was changed into criminal fine?

3- How many people went to prison pursuant to this article? How many people who went to prison received probation?

4- Is there anyone else in prison because of the aforesaid crime?

HDP Iğdır Deputy Pervin Buldan carried the punishments given to Sevan Nisanyan to the agenda of the parliament. Buldan gave voice to the injustices carried out in the case of Sevan Nisanyan in the parliamentary question that he extended to Minister of Justice Bekir Bozdag in December 2014:

"Sevan Nisanyan is known with his works to preserve and enliven traditional architecture in the village of Sirince in the district of Selçuk in İzmir. However, as a result of the jurisdiction carried out with the allegation that he was doing construction in the protected area in the entrance of Sirince village, in compliance with the law no 2863 article 65/b he was imposed 2 years and five thousand days punitive fine.

The law no 2863 article 65/b that formed the basis for the aforesaid decision was cancelled with 11.04.2012 day and E. 2011/18-K. 2012/53 numbered court decision of Supreme Court; the legislator did was required by the decision of cancellation on 11.10.2013 and replaced the law no 2863 article 65/b that caused the imprisonment of Sevan Nisanyan with law no 6498. In this way the decision of the Supreme Court was fulfilled. As for the High Court, it did not sufficiently scrutinize the decision of cancellation issued by the Supreme Court and despite the decision of the Supreme Court on 19.03.2014 day and E. 2013/8183- K. 2014/6870 numbered decision it was approved with regard to the “former” law no 2862 and was confirmed. This decision is in opposition to the articles 2. 38. and ECHR articles 6. and 7. because Sevan Nisanyan is according to this punished in accordance with a former law article.

Question 1- How many people are there that received punishment and whose punishment was carried out while they were in prison while law no 2863 article 65/b was effective?

Question 2- How many people are there that received punishment and whose punishment was carried out while they were in prison as a result of the implementation of the law no 2863 article 65/b?

Question 3- How many people are there who were judged, received punishment and whose punishment was carried out in accordance with law no 6498?

Question 4- How do you comment on the fact that it was approved by the High Court even though the law article was abolished? Why was the principle of legality violated? Isn’t the fact that the judicial authority exercises its right of confirming arbitrarily in opposition with the court decision  conflicting with the principles of the state of law?

Question 5- How many people are there in Turkey who were punished in compliance with the article of a law that is not present in Turkey?

Buldan's questions could not be answered. In fact there were no answers to be given.

In fact, Sevan Nisanyan incident is nothing different from freedom of speech and thought. Critical living is Sevan's way of life. What he did, what is found in his books and writings, was a criticism of regime, press code, penal code and also a criticism of legislations and regulations concerning construction, sanctuaries and protected areas. These are nothing but thoughts of criticism on the legislation of construction expressed not on paper but visually and with concrete examples.  One meaning of works of experimental architecture is this. The fact that the examples were of a kind that was comprehensible even to the simpleminded – by apologizing to the simpleminded – was seen as strange, and no one taking offence, Sevan was sent to prison.

Sevan could be said to have exaggerated his criticism with his examples; but then again that is Sevan’s style.

It is also noteworthy that apart from being shown as an example with his works of experimental architecture he has developed an authentic aesthetic approach. We can easily say that Sevan has processed the traditional through what is current and carried it to the universal.

One level of the works is about the use of the right to resist. Just as there is the criticism of the power that has not made a change in the legislation of construction to adapt it to our current time, it is also about using the right to resist the mentality that implemented actual construction ban. Sevan resisted against the powerful with his writings, also resisted against the government with more than 40 works of experimental architecture. He developed exemplary living areas like the Village of Mathematics and Theatre Madrasah.

One point that needs to be emphasized in this regard is the fact that Sevan does not exercise any kind of ownership in relation to these structures. There is nothing that belongs to Sevan apart from the plate on which it says Sevan Nisanyan Library on the library door of the Village of Mathematics constructed by Sevan Nisanyan in Şirince. Sevan has cut his ties with possession many years ago by donating all his property to Nesin Association.

It is by means of a deliberate project that Sevan was put into prison through the making up of a crime called Unlicensed Construction. This is not a matter of unlicensed construction. With this project, aside from trying to defame Sevan Nisanyan, many potential reactions to his being imprisoned because of his thoughts have been eliminated, and have also been silenced with the use of this project. The reason is that Sevan Nisanyan is an outspoken voice of the Armenian people as well as its pen that writes fearlessly.

There is a close relationship between the implementation of a four year denial project by the stateand Sevan’s prison period that began as four years. When Sevan is in prison the voice of the Armenians in Turkey will be muffled. In this regard Sevan is no different from the Armenian intellectuals that were sent to uncertainty a hundred years ago. (Today the total years of imprisonment given to Sevan have reached years. Next await lawsuits for damages that can not be paid).

The voice of the Armenian people has been muted. It is possible to see that in the hundredth year commemorations of the Armenian Genocide. Activities regarding the hundredth year are a repetition of Russel Crowe’s Dardanelles. In these meetings, 1001 nights tales are ceaselessly being told by male and female Scheherazades. 1001 nights tales should not end. The ending of the tale is deadly!

Another noteworthy matter concerning Sevan Nisanyan is the silence about this subject that has been going on for two years within the country and abroad.

Apart from a few persons, the main reason for the mass silence within the country is the same reason for receiving a punishment; that he is an outsider and an out of ordinary Armenian. His ethnic origin is the reason for the demolition decision about all the works he has constructed. Just like Armenian properties, Sevan’s works have been condemned to destruction. This is the reason why Sevan's works have been treated as derelicts.

It is understandable for TürkPEN members, who write novels with their sixty-word Turkish language knowledge, to remain silent with regard to a prolific writer like Sevan. In fact, we were not taken aback when the head of TürkPEN prevented International PEN’s campaign about Sevan. The frustration of having an outsider Armenian make the massive contribution to Turkish which not only themselves but even the Turkish Language Society could not make in 80 years, is understandable.2

For someone who learned Turkish in primary school, I do not hesitate to say that; a different kind of attitude could not be expected from a herd that cannot properly speak and write their own language. As we have said above: They are mediocre “in this way they have protected themselves from the attraction and threat of the odd one”.

Internation PEN has drawn attention to Sevan Nisanyan Incident despite oppositions from Turkey. TürkPEN did not make a sound, nor do we expect it to.

The silence of the Armenian people in Turkey can be justified: First, the Armenians in Turkey have been enslaved by the tellers of 1001 tales. Second, in the face of the pogrom call in the verdict of Prophet Case, a community that was subjected to genocide in the past and was assimilated through pogroms could not be expected to act in a different way. We need to accept that they were not being able to go out even to buy bread after three lines of Sevan on Mohammed as something natural.

Sevan has revived the old Greek Village, called Kırkınca / Cirkince in which the writer of Modern Greek masterpiece Benden Selam Söyle Anadolu’ya was born, and turned it into Sirince. Sirince people were brought to the Aegean region by exile from Epir Region and then they were sent back by exile again. Today, they live near Khaterini in Macedonia, in a village they call Nea Ephesus. In the summer of 2015, I went to this village and talked to the mukhtar. They might have something to do for Sevan who saved the village which was founded by their ancestors and in which they themselves were born and raised. I was wrong, there was nothing they could do. “Sevan went too far” was the answer I got. Because supporting Sevan or doing something for Sevan could make it difficult for them to comings and goings to and from Sirince, they could be deprived of their once-a-year chance to pray to the spirit of the ancestors in their old church. It is possible to understand the behaviour of the Mukhtar as a retreat and protection against the risk of bringing damage to the relationships. Still, I do not want to be unfair to the mukhtar. The Mukhtar was going to go to Sirince next week. He said he could talk about Sevan when he saw Selçuk Mayor. I thanked him.

International Human Rights Associations HRW and Amnesty International drew attention to Sevan’s condition and mentioned it in their reports. It is strange that human rights associations within the country still maintain their silence. As a matter of fact, no news is heard of the Human Rights Association who happen to have a commission on Racism and Discrimination.

We waited for a reaction to Sevan’s situation from Bilgi University, where he was teaching before, the answer we received was “We benefited from Sevan Nisanyan's intellectual capacity, but we don’t want to stand behind him”. “Yes, we exploited Sevan for a time but we have no need for him anymore” was what we understand from this.

We asked for permission for a photograph exhibition to show examples of experimental architecture from Bogaziçi University where he was a student for some time. Not only did they dedicate a place for us, but they also suggested giving a conference. We gave the conference on experimental architecture. In this regard we are grateful to the administration and students of Bogaziçi University.

There are other institutions to which we are grateful. The hall of The Association of Getronagan School Graduates was the hall where Sevan got his first reward in primary school in a knowledge contest. The association dedicated the hall to us for our meeting called “Sevan Nisanyan Incident and The Right to Resist”. Cezayir assembly hall is another one that was dedicated to us by Osman Kavala to talk about Sevan Nisanyan Incident. Of course there are many people to whom we are grateful: Abroad Doğan Özgüden, İnci Tuğsavul, Anjel Dikme, Saro Mardiryan, İbrahim Seven, Jozef Haddodo, Hovsep Hayreni, Nail Beth- Kinne. Within the country, Ercan Kanar, Ayşe Hür, Korhan Gümüş, Bülent Bilmez, Zakarya Mildanoğlu supported us by not leaving us alone as speakers in meetings. Kenan Yenice provided great support by preparing the posters, advertisements, brochures and visual materials of every meeting.

There is a silence about Sevan abroad as well. Both in the diaspora and in Armenia. It is thought that Sevan is not Armenian enough.  Yet, his works Adını Unutan Ülke, Ankara'nın Doğusu reveal Armenian patrimony and the inventory of their existence in Historical Armenia. Parallel to these work, the internet site nisanyanmap.comshares with visitors the short history of the smallest settlement of this geography. These three works prevented the traces of Armenians from being erased and made a footnote to history. 

Unfortunately and despite this, Sevan has not received a single support from the diaspora. In the first months in the diaspora one meeting was held in each of the cities Paris, Brussels, Vienna, Frankfurt and Hamburg. Then, Sevan was forgotten. 

We met with ANCA (Armenian National Committee of America) concerning Sevan Incident, they seemed interested, but they did not do anything nor did they include a single line on the subject in their reports. While not doing anything for Sevan, they also rewarded a 1001 nights storyteller from Turkey. 

We did not receive interest from the associations in the diaspora except the Armenian Council of Europe and Belgium Democratic Armenians Association. The meeting that these associations with limited resources held concerning Sevan in Paris and Belgium was sincere and enthusiastic.  

His live TV debate on the Armenian Genocide, which in Turkey very few people dare to mention, with the Head of Turkish Historical Society, has broken rating records. In the program, it would not be exaggerated to say that the Head of THS and program administrators were stunned to such a degree that they forgot even their names. 

In Armenia, The Writer's Union wanted to hold a meeting about Sevan. We shared information, sent documents, but to this day we have not received information confirming that this meeting has taken place. Sevan's books were being translated to Armenian. The publication of the books would take place in October in 2014. Nothing has been said until now. Armenia Daispora Ministry decided to give Sevan William Saroyan Literature Award. I was very happy about the reward. However, one and a half years have passed and the reward has not yet reached Sevan.

Like every mortal, it is natural for Sevan to make mistakes. Yet, I believe Sevan did not deserve the hostile attitude that was displayed and applied against him. As for the silence, it does not suit the society. It is not right to remain on the side of the ruling, the powerful with such enthusiasm.  

It is important to read what he expressed in the note that he gave to us while going back to prison from Berlin, where he went to see his children:

“Some people believed you and trusted in you. This puts a responsibility on you. Disappointing them means doing harm to them. You should not do this. You have engaged a struggle, you said you would take the consequences. It is disgraceful to say "I'm scared" when the wind turns for a moment. You should not disgrace yourself. You have begun to build a dream in your village, you have put your life into it. Now it would not be proper to abandon that life just because three officers nibbled and opened a hole in your life. You have much more to do. You said "don't be afraid" to the people, "what is missing in this country is courage." You have erected a tower of challenge. Now when the enemy appears in the horizon, it is self-contradictory to say "my personal comfort is more sacred than all” and to run away. You should not contradict yourself. You have met most of the ones who ran away. You loved most of them, became friends with them. But you have seen that the stamp of "defeat" being put on their foreheads with no erasable ink. You should not be stamped with that…”

...with these words he left and went back to the prison until an unknown future date in which we would hopefully meet again.

Exiled from Torbalı, Buca and Sakran and finally from Yenipazar prisons, Sevan today does not know how long he will remain imprisoned in Söke Prison.

Despite all these, it is in vain to seek the fear of a pigeon in his eyes. He emphasizes that he possesses the stubbornness of an ostrich.

1. Etyen Mahçupyan, Sevan Nişanyan diye bir adam,

2. Sevan Nişanyan is the one of Turkey’s researchers who published the first serious studies on the etymology of Turkish. His book published in 2002 “Sözlerin Soyağacı, Çağdaş Türkçenin Etimolojik Sözlüğü” has been a precursor of other studies on this domain. (NDLR).


Armenian genocide : recognition and reparations


Subscribe to our newsletter

Partners on the “Repair” project: