The Turkish Twitter-sphere went abuzz July 14 with a post that read, "The bird has flown away. Wishing the same for the remaining 80 million." The tweet belonged to ethnic Armenian linguist and writer Sevan Nisanyan, who had been behind bars since January 2014. True to his flamboyant style, Nisanyan had chosen Twitter to announce he had escaped from prison and was a free person again.
For years, Nisanyan stood out as a colorful individual on Turkey's intellectual scene. A Yale and Columbia University alumnus, he is the author of a prominent etymological dictionary and travel guides, but the book that made him a truly controversial figure was the "Wrong Republic," which questioned taboos about the Turkish Republic and its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, infuriating secular and nationalist Turks. With his blunt criticism of religion, he also drew the wrath of pious Turks as well.
The chain of events that led to his imprisonment began in 1995, when Nisanyan relocated to the picturesque village of Sirince, near Turkey's Aegean coast. Sirince was in a state of decay, and Nisanyan began renovating its traditional houses, converting them into stylish hostels known as "pensions."
Thanks to Nisanyan's efforts, Sirince soon became a popular tourist destination. Yet, there was a problem. The place was a protected area — off-limits to construction — which meant that Nisanyan had engaged in illegal construction activity. His transgression, however, had more to do with the cumbersome Turkish bureaucracy. After the village was declared a protected area in 1987, the authorities were supposed to revise the area's zoning plan within a year, which they failed to do. A stone's throw from the magnificent Ephesus, one of Turkey's top historical sites, the village fell into a state of disrepair. Exasperated from petitioning the authorities for the new zoning plan, Nisanyan decided to go ahead anyway. In the meantime, he had begun to produce his controversial writings, which, quite tellingly, coincided with a series of demolition orders for the pensions. In one interview, Nisanyan said his troubles began after he became a columnist for the Taraf daily in 2009. "Twenty-three demolition decisions followed in 2010," he said.
In an illegal construction haven such as Turkey, the authorities' sternness vis-a-vis Nisanyan and the trials that followed were quite unusual. The most striking example is perhaps President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's gigantic palace, which was erected on a protected area despite a court ruling that had ordered the construction to stop. After the 2014 ruling, Erdogan challenged the court with a memorable comment: "Let them demolish it if they can."
Nisanyan, too, refused to heed the demolition orders. In a further act of defiance, he erected a tower to "proclaim his own republic." When word came that the authorities would carry out the demolitions, he said "only over my dead body" and sent out invitations for his own "funeral" to draw public attention to the controversy. Sirince eventually remained intact, but Nisanyan landed behind bars on Jan. 2, 2014, after one of his convictions was upheld.
Before going to prison, he gave an interview to a magazine, for which he posed in a bathtub, holding a glass of wine. "The state cannot ruin my spirits, even if I have to serve another 8½ years in jail," he said.
Myriad campaigns were organized for Nisanyan's release, including one involving prominent Turkish mathematician Ali Nesin, who had set up a unique Mathematics Village in Sirince. Nesin, too, faced an investigation on charges of illegal construction, which demonstrates how the judicial stick is being used against intellectuals in Turkey.
While in prison, Nisanyan was convicted in a number of other cases. Keeping track of his trials and jail terms has become quite difficult. According to Nisanyan, the upheld convictions totaled close to 18 years, which, under procedural rules, meant he would spend 6½ years in jail — that is, if no other convictions followed.
Nisanyan was put in an open prison, where inmates are allowed to leave the jail premises on certain days. Nisanyan used this right to escape. He simply did not return to prison this time. Following his Twitter post July 14, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag hurriedly made a statement that an arrest order had been issued for the escapee. Prison officials, meanwhile, faced disciplinary procedures.
Nesin describes his friend as a polyglot who speaks fluent English, French and German, in addition to having skills in Arabic and Latin, not to mention his "terrific" command of the Turkish language and its etymology. Nisanyan's whereabouts remain unknown, but this outstanding intellectual is believed to be no longer in Turkey.
While Nisanyan was escaping, six leading human rights defenders — Idil Eser, Gunal Kursun, Veli Acu, Ozlem Dalkiran, Peter Steudtner and Ali Gharawi — were rounded up after police raided their training seminar on an Istanbul island without any legal justification. The activists have now joined other prominent colleagues in Turkish prisons, where about 170 journalists as well as parliament members and writers are also languishing — victims of Ankara's massive crackdown on dissent since last year's coup attempt. Hundreds of academics, meanwhile, are grappling with trials, in addition to their expulsions from universities. Those who remain free live under the constant threat of judicial action.
This brings us back to Nisanyan's tweet, in which he seemed to liken all of Turkey to a prison, wishing freedom for all his compatriots. Referring to the clamor his message provoked, he later tweeted, "I guess I put the feelings of the [whole] country into words. Eighty million dream of fleeing the madhouse in which they are locked up."